Friday 28 May 2021

Social Conservatism and Tory Overreach

Every period of dominance carries the seeds of its downfall, and the present overweening pre-eminence of the Tories is no different. But where are these immanent weaknesses and fault lines, the points of potential collapse that will eventually do for Boris Johnson what the ballot box hitherto has failed to manage? It's pleasing to note that just as their long-term decline hasn't gone away, despite recent successes and enviable polling leads, another persistent characteristic of their tradition is living and breathing. This is the tendency, the urge to overreach.

Consider each of the last four Tory Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher had her Poll Tax, an attack so manifestly unpopular and obviously counterproductive for the Tories that they kicked their most iconic leader since Churchill to the kerb. John Major managed just two years in the chair before his government overreached. Reeling from the farce of Black Wednesday, to follow it up with their vindictive pit closures programme and charging VAT on fuel bills to pensioners added cruel and callous to the popular perception of incompetence. Dave, does anything need to be added? Gambling and losing the UK's EU membership for the sake of warding off the UKIP threat in a handful of seats was probably the most reckless wager any Tory leader has made - at least until Johnson's handling of the pandemic came along and killed 128,000 people. Theresa May is on the hook too. Her mistake wasn't so much calling a general election in early 2017. With a commanding poll lead, thumping personal ratings, and a divided opposition what Tory leader wouldn't exploit the opportunity? The overreach here manifested itself in the terrible campaign the Tories ran. Nor is this just a disease of the leaders. For the longest time the Tories believed hard euroscepticism was the route to electoral success even though it had zero purchase - until a series of circumstances and poor decisions created the circumstances when it did.

Helpfully for Boris Johnson his friends in broadcast and print have shielded him from the consequences of being Boris Johnson. So far. But there are signs. Writing in The Graun, Andy Beckett reports on the ripples of concern bobbing about the Tory party in Southern England. While the new voters in the deindustrialised north were toasted for giving Labour a thumping, their eyes and ears were shut to the crumbling blue wall. In the shires and country lanes, the reds, yellows, and greens are making an advance. The corest of core areas are not the Arcadian redoubts they're supposed to be. So while the Tories talk about levelling up and get excited about infrastructure projects in the North East, the base they've loyally pampered might start shopping around. Or, worse, they might think they can go without and start attacking them if they get in the way.

If this wasn't tempting enough, there are other ways a death instinct can be satisfied. Also writing in The Graun, Tim Bale has a butchers at the latest book to issue from the many "research groups" fighting for space on the Tory benches. The Common Sense Group have pushed out a collection of essays "for a post-Liberal age". There's stuff in here on policing, on education and apprenticeships, stuff on families, and loads of other Tory touchstones. Note, nothing on housing, the environment and climate change, health and the pandemic, and life after Coronavirus. The one essay that particularly delights is the five page screed from Alexander Stafford, a typical well-heeled suit who now finds himself in an erstwhile proletarian stronghold - this time Rother Valley. To read the title of his essay, 'Social Conservatism – Turning the Red Wall Blue for Years to Come', is to read the essay. Not pretending to any originality, he argues Labour is now the party of the luvvies, the middle class, and "the woke" and former stalwart seats gave them the heave ho because of an abandonment of "traditional values". Also, the Tories are the party of "hard work" and must stand up for their new electorate's antipathy to "ever-larger handouts". With a mix of fiscal prudence and one nationism, "by opposing unpatriotic political correctness, conserving British institutions, and reversing the diminution of our country’s stature and history, we can end the culture war, and in doing so defend British values and our way of life" (p.111).

We've recently seen one Tory overstate Conservative activism as the key to victory, but that's harmless enough for Tory prospects. A spot of leafleting and occasional door knocking never did any party any harm. But to put success down to values is, as per the Tory way, to fundamentally recognise and misrecognise something simultaneously. Given the social positioning and lifeworlds of their old and new cores, peddling socially conservative culture war bobbins might work for some, particularly those relatively insulated from the everyday grind. Remember, the more secure the Tory voter is the less secure they feel. But for others, there is a transactional component to their switch from Labour to the Tories. Brexit is the obvious one, but the Johnson trumpeting of moving departments out of London, and talk about the levelling up of regions, even if it assumes clientelist forms, is a recognition family values bullshit and racist scapegoating aren't going to cut it. Andy Street's success in Birmingham and the galloping victory of Ben Houchen on Teesside was thanks to a perceived record of delivery, and is the same explanation for why Labour expanded its reach in the North West and Wales.

In his eagerness to force the pace of moulding Britain (England) around his mouldering social conservatism, Stafford falls prey to hubris. He might read his Rother Valley victory as an embrace of conservative values, but more than anything it was a rejection of a Labour Party lousy with entitlement and contempt. If he and his ilk don't deliver and are seen just pratting about lecturing poor people on how they spend their money, he'll be lucky to last two terms. And Stafford is by no means an isolated MP. If this becomes the Tory common sense and discussion of investment just remains words, then their misrecognition will really bite. Nemesis will happily jog in once Hubris has had its wicked way.

Unfortunately, ascribing social conservatism supernatural powers is more a feature of Labour than the Tories at present. Likewise, the wobbles in safe Tory seats are just that - minor tremors. But new fault lines can rapidly proliferate. If the Conservative Party neglects enough of the traditional core or, worse, attacks them, if they talk a good economic regeneration but nothing happens, and if Labour gets its act together and stops blaming Jeremy Corbyn for its ills then these small signs can become portents of disaster. And by the time they're flashing the warning lights and sounding the alarm, that will be the moment it's too late for the Tories to do anything about it.

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Blissex said...

«John Major [...] the farce of Black Wednesday, to follow it up with their vindictive pit closures programme and charging VAT on fuel bills to pensioners added cruel and callous to the popular perception of incompetence.»

I think that the "farce", "pit closure" and "VAT on fuel bills" and "incompetence" did not matter much if at all, but the huge rise in interest rates and the crash of property prices that followed "Black Wednesday" mattered a lot. Those who vote Conservative or New Labour or LibDem don't care much about the vagaries of the financial markets as such and far less about the pit workers in the "trot" areas, and while some may have been annoyed by the VAT thing, pensioners were a much less strong vested interest group 30 years go.

«Theresa May [...] The overreach here manifested itself in the terrible campaign the Tories ran.»

Such a terrible campaign resulted in the Conservatives winning more votes than any party for 20 years (even if on an expanded electorate), getting 2.3m million more votes than the slick 2015 campaign of Cameron and almost 3m more than Cameron's celebrated success of 2010:

1997: 13.52m NLab. 09.60m Con. 5.24m LD
2001: 10.72m NLab. 08.34m Con. 4.81m LD
2005: 09.55m NLab. 08.78m Con. 5.99m LD
2010: 08.61m NLab. 10.70m Con. 6.84m LD
2015: 09.35m NLab. 11.33m Con. 6.30m LD+UKIP
2017: 12.88m Lab. 13.64m Con. 2.37m LD
2019: 10.30m Lab. 13.97m Con. 3.70m LD

She did not win a majority of seats only because of the enormous "Corbyn surge" for Labour as all those ex-Labour kippers went back to Labour, the "Remain" Labour voters did not mostly switch elsewhere their vote as they and the membership accepted the "something like EEA+EFTA" compromise, and a new group of voters came back to Labour after Corbyn decisely dropped thatcherism.

Blissex said...

«thanks to a perceived record of delivery»

Sometimes local delivery matters, but the traditional tory (Con, NuLab, LibDem) voters care about delivery as to high housing cost inflation primarily, and as to low wages and low taxes secondarily.

Traditional tory voters did not even care much about brexit: the 30-35% of tory voters who chose "Remain" by and large kept voting Conservative in 2015, 2017, 2019, with only a modest switch to the LibDems, because the Conservatives kept delivering on housing costs, wages, taxes.

Note: the converse did not entirely happen: there was a significant chunk of "Leave" voters for whom housing costs, wages, taxes mattered less than "Leave", and that helped New Labour defeat Labour in the 2019 elections.