Sunday 11 October 2020

The Tories' Northern Discomfort

At the beginning of this year, the Tories were musing aloud about the new seats won from the Labour Party. What does this mean for the parliamentary discipline as a bunch of also rans and paper candidates who were never meant to win did? How can the party respond to constituents on the sharp end of their social security system, their landlordism, and their running down of the health service? This is a matter of some concern. Dave and Osborne's hammering of public services made life more difficult in Labour seats in the 2010s. Repeating the same would threaten the chance of a majority Tory government in 2024, so goes the wisdom.

This is the context for the appearance of a new Tory faction, the provisionally-titled Northern Research Group. Comprised of new entrant red wall MPs and led by Rossendale and Darwen's Jake Berry, its very existence suggests some Tories aren't about to take their leader's promises to level up the north at face value. You just have to look at the government's northern discomfort over its inconsistent application of Coronavirus quarantine measures and the ire this is drawing from local authority leaders irrespective of party affiliation. Time will tell if they are Hi-NRG and cause the government headaches down the road. Perhaps they might be able to provide answers for the question vexing Tory strategists: how can the party keep hold of these seats?

There have emerged three broad and overlapping schools of thought, which have jostled for space in the crowded and conflicted Tory imaginary since the election. The first is the most complacent: do nothing. Or, to be more precise, carry on carrying on. As one influential Tory argued in January, cracking down on social security is actually popular among the working class folk of their new seats so why stop? As for the stuff about transport infrastructure and dying town centres, who cares? Let them continue to rot. I suppose there is logic to these arguments: if social decay proved no barrier to the Tories winning depressed seats in 2019, who's to say they'll drag on efforts in 2024?

Then we have the culture war stuff, which several NRGies are keen on. Once Brexit is over, the Tories need fresh unifying hogwash to keep their coalition of voters excitable and pliant. Fulminating about handfuls of refugees in the Channel, or an armada of Spanish trawlers invading British waters like it's 1588, or giving students and luvvies a slap will do the job. Give them something to unite against, populist style.

Last of all, and the least likely outcome is the Prime Minister delivering on his promises. At virtual party conference, Johnson talked a good blue Jerusalem, a post-Brexit Britain as a green powerhouse. His was a vision of post-industrial areas thrumming to the sound of wind turbine and electric vehicle manufacture, while the rest of the country is carpeted with woodland. Who could possibly quibble at such a vision? Certainly not the left, from whom it was unceremoniously half-inched - including the 'green industrial revolution' slogan. Presumably new industry, new jobs, and with it new housing will cement the Tories in position for at least another two terms, after which the fate of the party is someone else's problem.

Ideally for the Tories, a combination of all three would do the business. This is certainly how the Prime Minister would like Boris Island to pan out - flash industry, cultural authoritarianism, and open season on (racialised) scapegoats. The biggest obstacle to realising this isn't the Labour Party, who one day might offer something more than managerial and process criticisms, but the Tory party itself. The incompetence shown throughout the Coronavirus crisis results not from generalised uselessness (which isn't to say cluelessness is entirely absent), but from balancing the conflicting pressures and interests from their elite and mass base. Build homes, but run the risk of depressing property prices and shrinking the renting pool. Open up the economy to get commerce flowing again, but place its elderly support in harm's way. Offer support to workers to get them through the Coronavirus crisis, but undermine the disciplinary effects of mass joblessness. Theoretically, nothing is preventing Johnson from ploughing through and delivering on his promises for the north. He has an almost unassailable majority and the prestige of winning behind him. And yet if he can't get a handle on Covid-19 with all the advantages he has, there's no reason to believe a post-pandemic programme is going to be any easier to deliver.

As things stand the new Northern Research Group are in for a busy, if panicky time. The government is going to flounder and fall short, and there will be real political pain. The question then is where are our plucky defenders of the north are going to be. Holding Johnson's feet to the fire of his pledges, or meekly shuffling to wherever the chief whip herds them. Thanks to the miserable record of Tory rebellions in recent years, we can hazard a good guess at what the answer will turn out to be.


KevM said...

Thanks, Phil.

Anonymous said...

Q: How much does 'a bunch of also rans and paper candidates who were never meant to win' echo the Tories who were elected in 1983 on account of the SDP split? The Tories - then and now - might be driven more by the need to keep their seats than actually doing anything useful for their Labour-leaning constituents.

Blissex said...

«a combination of all three would do the business. [...] The biggest obstacle to realising this isn't the Labour Party [...] but the Tory party itself.»

What the Conservatives do is sort of irrelevant unless they screw up massively, and the biggest help they have is indeed (New, New) Labour's "quasi-Conservatives" strategy.

Most voters vote their core (as a rule economic class) interests, and don't maximize the value of their vote, they have a "satisficing" aim, so don't fire a government that satisfies their core interests in favour of another party promising to satisfy them even better. Otherwise the right-wing vote would alternate between Conservatives and LibDems, instead of the LibDems (or UKIP) being just in essence protest votes for a minority of somewhat disgruntled tories.

Since the electoral strategy of (New, New) Labour is instead to promise to satisfy the core interests of Conservative voters even better than the Conservatives, this will have two main consequences: people who used to vote for Labour because of their core interests will increasingly abstain, while people who vote Conservative will continue to vote Conservative
(until the Conservatives massively screw up their core interests), even if their managerial skills are perceived to be inferior to those of (New, New) Labour.

The Conservatives would be in trouble if Labour managed to change what a chunk of voters think are their core interests, or to increase the turnout of people with core interests that are Labour class interests. That is very likely (but something like that nearly happened in 2017), because neither is going to be even attempted.

BCFG said...

I live in a former mining village in the North and it has been completely gentrified. Rather than industrial decline and squalor it’s all concreted drives, golf bags and immaculate bushes!

Some are living the bourgeois dream here!