Thursday 14 May 2020

Conservatism after Coronavirus

Where does the Conservative Party go after Covid-19, assuming there is an after? Leaving aside current difficulties, for the dyed-in-wool conservative the mood the crisis has accelerated is not conducive to their ideological hobby horses. Yes, a left-led Labour Party was sent packing before Christmas but apart from Brexit and whatever fantasies they poured into it, Boris Johnson's government hardly bellows with a Thatcherite roar. The manifesto said very little beyond getting Brexit done, conferring on the Prime Minister considerable leeway. And this range of action saw him dump Sajid Javid, the avowed disciple of Ayn Rand, and bring in Rishi Sunak as the face for a pronounced turn to big spending. Worse, the Coronavirus outbreak has encouraged unimaginable state overstretch, from the typical Tory point of view. The restrictions on comings and goings are bad enough, but a (modest) uprating of benefits? Temporary bans on evictions? The part-nationalisation of the country's pay roll? Bad, bad, bad. All the austerity messages of a decade worth of cuts now as useful as a soiled face mask. Where do the Tories and conservative politics go from here now their assumptions have been blown up?

This was the topic of this afternoon's IPPR seminar with Nick Timothy, Theresa May's former right hand man, and Tim Bale, noted pol prof and academic authority on the Tories. Hosted by Carys Roberts, the session was about exploring some of the arguments in Timothy's new book, Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism. Appearing just before the outbreak, obviously there was nothing in it about preparing the party for a pandemic but, in his opening remarks, the arguments made still apply. And these arguments? This is a polemic against what he refers to as 'extreme liberalism' on the right, left and centre of politics and makes the case for a 'communitarian correction'. What does this mean?

Timothy assured the audience he was not against liberalism. Indeed, it is the essential tradition legitimating strong institutions, a free press, elections, protection of minorities against the majority, market economics and its link to personal freedom, justice, security, and the recognition of each other and ourselves as citizens. Essential liberalism therefore is not a philosophical programme as such but more a way of doing things, a habit of convention and mind facilitating a diversity of political and policy choices. A pluralistic society does mean Interests and values are in tension, and choices made by one can conflict with the interests of another. Hence maintaining balance is difficult, and becomes impossible if liberalism gives way to extreme liberalism.

What is this? It comes in a number of flavours. Among the governing classes 'elite liberalism' means the marketisation of services and the state, light touch regulation in economic matters except for labour markets, and all the various accoutrements the left would associate with neoliberalism. In addition to this consensus, there is an ultra liberalism of the right which emphasises market fundamentalism, and that of the left which we see expressed in cultural liberalism and identity politics. Ostensibly opposing one another they are actually in a symbiotic relationship which leaves economic dislocation and social atomisation in their wake. Timothy's argument is we need to break with this and advocates a communitarian politics in its stead. This would be big on solidarity, community, reformed capitalism, and mutual obligations while rejecting selfishness and individualism. Nor does this need grafting on to our communities. During the present crisis we have seen big community responses and, if anything, government policy has largely tailed spontaneous efforts at social distancing. Readers will recall, for instance, how the Tories were initially against banning public gatherings and closing schools and it was largely the simple refusal of millions to put themselves at risk that forced the government's hand.

The problem is as we pass back to something resembling 'the before', the circumstances for the old way of doing things have passed. Those hoping for more years of austerity are likely to be disappointed for two reasons. An industrial strategy is necessary to get Britain back on its feet, and second personality-wise Boris Johnson simply isn't an austerity politician. Timothy likened him to Harold Macmillan, someone who used to burn through chancellors who disagreed with him but was concerned above all with maintaining full employment. Furthermore, the electoral logic of voter coalition building makes going back electorally painful. While Labour now commands the votes of the young, of most minority ethnicities and the public sector the new Tory voters rule out a rinse and repeat of the last decade. The party needs to find another way of keeping its coalition together, and a communitarian turn could do just that, especially when Brexit as a mobilising issue will not have the same potency in four years' time.

Taking questions, the first was how did ultra liberalism win in the Tories over one nation politics? Timothy replied there was always a right wing section of the party, albeit a minority, who were uncomfortable with the middle's enthusiasm for the post-war consensus. And then they won the party leadership Thatcher they began dismantling the post-war order, a change he thought was "necessary". But her governments conspicuously failed to avoid the consequences of deindustrialisation. After Thatcher left office the party subsequently became more Thatcherite and, under John Major, moved to market-based models for public services. Now the Tories have won a swathe of seats on places that bore the brunt in the 1980s, Timothy has a sense these new MPs are casting around for new ideas to keep hold of these seats. On this, Tim Bale disagreed. He said the parliamentary party and the party-in-the-country remained very Thatcherite and committed to economic liberalism. As such, these grumbles leak and trouble the media. They are worried the present measures and what comes next could wind back the last 10 years. Others of a fiscally conservative bent have concerns over funding, and fret splashing money about relinquishes the deficit stick they used to beat Labour with (readers might recall how the deficit and debt became a synonym for economic competence under Dave and Osborne).

Asked if they could come out on top, Bale said Johnson had made significant changes before the crisis which ensured the traditional champion of financial prudence - the Treasury - had been significantly sidelined. Replacing Sajid Javid with Rishi Sunak and integrating the functions of Number 11 and Number 10 centralised more authority in the Prime Minister's hands. Timothy agreed, as traditionally in Whitehall the Treasury is imperial and dominates all. Its priority is always prudence, and its oversight of the spending of other departments leads to second guessing them on policy. Recalling his time in the Home Office, he said spending commitments are subject to vetting and they tried to control it. Therefore any economic rebalancing or industrial strategy requires curbing the Treasury and jettisoning its orthodoxy, which is contained in The Green Book.

Early on in the talk, Timothy mentioned a communitarian turn could be taken by the left or the right, so who is most likely to take it and reap the benefit? Here, Bale thought Labour possesses a distinct advantage as social democracy is premised on collective solutions, and given their embrace of a particular form of individualism it poses the Tories real difficulties. Furthermore, there is a danger a conservative cultural communitarianism might go down the nostalgia route which only appeals to a few. It was enough to win an election under the specific circumstances of 2019 but does not offer the party a long-term solution. A communitarian economics would also be hard for the party's MPs and membership to swallow. More localism, something plenty of Tories have paid lip service to, means the actual decentralisation of powers. And that ultimately means control over localised taxation and what to levy it on. Likewise, Timothy said for those suspicious of the state need to realise services cannot be done on the cheap - a professionally provided service cannot be replaced by enthusiastic amateurs, as was the assumption underpinning Big Society thinking.

For Timothy the Tories have to get serious about difficult decisions, and nothing exemplifies this better than social care - as he found out. Care quality is generally questionable and it's leaving people to die without dignity while possibly losing their homes too. Therefore, only a number of funding options are open. He felt asking people of working age was out of the question as they wrestle with stagnant wages and galloping property prices. This leaves estates, and sooner or later they will have to be taxed properly. Bale thought social care presented the Tories a huge opportunity, with political rewards for knitting health and social care together. It would also put Labour on the back foot - though why considering the integration of the two has been a policy objective in the last three manifestos was a point left unexplored.

On the election of Keir Starmer, does this change things? Would a Tory move in a communitarian, one nation-ish direction bring the two parties closer together? Assessing the problems Labour have - a concentrated urban and university town vote, the Scotland wipe out, retreats in Wales and now in England, for Timothy the difficulty is how to bridge these diverse groups and win over the swing voters necessary to form a government. It seems Labour's early days strategy is to frame issues where they feel the party is strong: on socio-economic issues and avoid the identity questions that did for the party. The Tories have the opposite issue: they have to keep identity politics alive and avoid economic issues, but Timothy didn't think this would have much in the way of legs - banging on about human rights because Keir Starmer was a human rights lawyer isn't going to help when the questions of the age are economic. For Bale, what is going to matter in the coming years is competence and looking at work done on government performance, there is a tendency for bad but early events to adversely effect electoral performance than more recent crises. Hence what the Tories do now is crucial for their future prospects. If Starmer is able to pin problems on the government, which is presently receiving favourable coverage, that will be a big problem. Tories could be tempted to overshoot on cultural questions if the economy debate isn't going well.

Wrapping up, Timothy was asked about what three things he would do to reform capitalism. He would overhaul the way taxes are raised, look at ways of addressing pay such as empowering shareholders to determine executive pay, uprating the minimum wage, and allowing "guilds" to develop for occupations in the middle who would then negotiate sectoral salaries. Something to act like a trade union that isn't a trade union then. And lastly he would change corporate governance, which is better than micromanagement by the government. Such governance would reflect the involvement of workers, and address consumer rights and the locality footprint of the business.

Nick Timothy is interesting as far as Tory thinkers are concerned because, similar to the red Tory fad of a decade or so ago, he sees the path to continued good fortune lead out from neoliberal orthodoxies and back to one nation grounds of social peace and ontological security. A position, funnily enough, I share. Both are right to emphasise the drag the party and the political composition of its MPs has on adapting itself in this direction, but if this is Johnson's chosen destination his election-winning authority coupled with the political shock of the coronavirus crisis and the miserable state of Britain's economy might see him succeed where Brexit and hubris ensured Theresa May failed. Yet this is politics. Strategies are about maximising your room for manoeuvre and structuring the possibilities of success. Presently, it's looking like the government's handling of the crisis is slipping out of their hands as they oversee a premature return to work and, undoubtedly, a second spike in infections. And this is on top of its problem with younger voters and, particularly, how the Tories are the biggest barrier to generating future consistent Tory voters: the process of property acquisition has broken down and the compromises they've made to keep their present coalition together ensures they're unable to address this. The Tories can affect a communitarian turn, but events could damage them and the shifting composition of work and concentration of property means their voters are not being replaced in sufficient numbers. It is very difficult to see how the Tories can permanently overcome this predicament.

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Jim Denham said...

Phil: you seem to share the softness on Timothy and his "communitarian" nonsense that Nick Wright of the CPB/Morning Star has also expressed (maybe because he's a fellow Brexiteer and anti-internationalist).

Timothy is not "progressive" or even "interesting" in any meaningful sense. He may oppose economic "liberalism" but he also opposes social "liberalism" which regressive and Stalinist sections of the left sneer at as "identity politics": actually, despite some foolishness and excesses, this means recognition of minority rights.

Never forget, Timothy wrote May's sinsiter "Citizens of Nowhere" speech.

Phil said...

My "soft spot" is he's advocating for the direction the Tories need to go to survive. That is all.

Jim Denham said...

"he's advocating for the direction the Tories need to go to survive": why would any socialist give a toss about that?

PS I've been a bit unfair to Nick Wright: it was Andrew Murray who was most approving of Timothy, in a Morning Star review of his book.

Phil said...

If you cant think why socialists should take an interest in Tory strategies I really don't know where to begin.