Sunday 25 August 2019

The Long-Term Decline of the Tories

One of the key points this blog has hammered time and again is how the Conservative Party is in long-term decline, and many of its pathologies, from extreme short-termism to the predominance of unprincipled, incompetent chancers are symptoms of a slow burning crisis now coming to a head. I say slow burning because the argument the party is in long-term decline was first ventured by John Ross in his 1983 book, Thatcher and Friends: The Anatomy of the Tory Party. And as might readers know, I'm working on a book on the very same topic. What then does a book a stone's throw from 40 years of age reveal about the Tory party today? Quite a bit as it turns out.

The main thrust of John's argument is based on the declining votes of the Tories since their peak in 1931. Prior to then, between 1859 and 1931 the party was in a long term ascendency, and assumed a dominant position from 1886. Of course there were peaks and troughs in both periods, but vote proportions plotted in a graph demonstrate a rise and fall tendency. More specifically, between 1931 and 1983 John observes that with the single exception of 1955, the Tories won elections with a decreasing portion of the overall vote compared to their previous outing. For instance, Ted Heath's Tories won in 1970 with 46.4%, and Thatcher in 1979 and 1983 with 43.9% and 42.4%. How did this trend stand up after the book was published? 1987 saw 42.2%, and 1992 41.9%. Leaving out the trough years of opposition, the Tories returned to government in the 2010 hung parliament with 36.1%, but won a majority in 2015 with 36.9%, and lost its majority on the basis of 42.4% in 2017. Therefore the pattern John identified was broken between 2010 and 2015. Indeed, writing in 2013 John forecast the Tories would get 30.3% at the following election, a prediction that unfortunately turned out not to be the case.

Does this mean the long-term decline thesis is bunk? If we rely on the vote proportion argument, not necessarily. It is quite possible, indeed likely, the Tories at the next election won't be able to repeat Theresa May's feat. Partly because Boris Johnson's entirely transparent strategy is to repeat what she managed in 2017, and the problem with that is this particular voter coalition itself is in long-term decline and not renewing itself. And the possibility the Brexit Party could still menace the Tories from the right, which is what Annunziata Rees-Mogg suggests regardless of political circumstances. Therefore the downward trend can easily reassert itself, and probably would.

Can't we make similar observations about Labour? Rising from 1900 to 1945 and 1950 where Labour polled 47.7% and then losing the election the following year on 48.8% (despite getting 200,000 more votes than the Tories), haven't we seen decline since? When it next won office in 1964 it got 44.1%, then 48% in 1966, and declining to 37.2% at its next victory in February 1974 and 39.2% in the year's Autumn election. Then it was 43.2% in 1997, 40.7% in 2001, and lastly 35.2% in 2005. Therefore not as neat a pattern, but the same overall direction is evident. Meanwhile the combined vote share of the two main parties has also suffered. From 96.8% in 1951 it declined to an all-time low of 65.1% in 2010 before rebounding slightly in 2015 with 67.3% and then very strongly at the last election with 82.4% - the best performance since 1970. Is it the case that as more options have presented themselves at the polls, the duopoly has found it increasingly difficult to hold on and that Tory decline isn't Tory decline as such but a consequence of politics fragmenting thanks an increasingly complex society?

Thatcher and Friends suggests not. In fact, John contests the very notion the party system can be considered a duopoly. Since the eclipse of the Liberals in 1918 the last century is characterised by a unipolar political system in which the Tories were in power much longer than the rest put together. It has won general elections, defined here as having the most seats, on 18 out of 27 occasions and has been in government 61 out of the last 101 years. He argues by virtue of the party's long history, it being the preferred party of British capital, its weight in the institutions and wider culture, and overweening material resources, it is the chief prop of our party system. A crisis of the Tories therefore impacts on the rest of the system and portends its end. This, he argues, is part of a pattern of cycles that have characterised British politics since the 17th century, and these cycles are conditioned by the developments of types of capital. From 1688 to 1783, the domination of parliament by the Whigs coincided with the accumulation of landed, mercantile and banking capital. This was followed by a period of Tory dominance lasting until 1832, and proceeded alongside the industrial revolution and the rise of manufacturing capital. Following their crisis and split, the newly-formed Liberals fused with the Whigs and commanded politics up until 1885 and coincided with laissez-faire capitalism, before getting overtaken by a new Tory supremacy from 1886 based on imperialism and overseas investment, which persisted to when John was writing and, arguably, to the present day. Toward the end of each period of dominance, the commanding party enters into crisis and something else takes over, with the next period being a period of convalescence and recomposition.

John's argument in 1983 was that the decline of Tory electoral performance and the emergence of the SDP/Liberal Alliance as a viable third party suggested the crisis was at hand. And yet they went on to win another two elections and saw its opponents adopt the mainstays of the Thatcherite settlement. Nevertheless, despite forming a coalition in 2010, bouncing back and winning a majority in 2015, and getting 42% at the last election the party is currently and obviously in its worst crisis since 1836. May left the party on the brink, and Johnson's pitch to no deal and reckless brinkmanship is a means of forestalling the party's existential crisis. This year's EU elections offer Tories a glimpse of what could happen to their party if it does not placate its voter coalition. Given the choice between avoiding permanent damage to the British economy and preserving the Tory party, because it is the primary instrument by which bourgeois interests are articulated and served the viability of the latter will trump the former every single time. But this only averts an immediate crisis. Should Johnson get through Brexit, call a general election and win it, which is possible, the party does not escape the challenge of long-term decline: the non-replacement of its core voters, its toxicity, its being out-of-step with the values, experiences, and interests of the rising generation.

The book also makes a number of other interesting and valuable observations: that the Tories were formed as and remained the party of landed, mercantile, and finance capital, and how it actively stymied the industrial development of the British economy after the 1830s and encouraged investment overseas because it foresaw the rapid emergence of a numerically dominant working class as a political challenge it'd rather not deal with. In this sense, Thatcher's attack on the post-war consensus by breaking up the labour movement was entirely in line with the politics of her 19th century forebears. And also, John warns how making anti-Toryism the baselines of your politics can disarm the labour movement, which we saw with the triumph of New Labour and the occasional appeal, to some, by the Liberal Democrats.

In short, plenty of material for me to chew on with relation to my own project. But truly, it should not be a book left to gather dust on charity shop shelves. The historical argument about the periodisation of political cycles, and of the class alliances comprising the Tory party remain as relevant now as they were first written. A forgotten but important contribution to the Marxist analysis of ruling class politics, and one worth seeking out.

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qwertboi said...

Just wondering Phil: Does the trend you identify NOT cause you to promote a more proportional voting system over FPTP for reasons of self-interest as well as correcness? Both of which are obviously relevant and democratically equitable.

Phil said...

Sorry for not responding sooner! I've always been in favour of more proportional voting systems, even before I started writing about the Tories. And, unsurprisingly, remain so!