Monday 11 July 2022

Explaining the Tory Leadership Race

What are people expecting from the Tory leadership contest? I ask because there's some genuine befuddlement among media circles and the ivory towers of the politics professoriat. They look at the dozen names that have put themselves forward and see a shared tranche of priorities that aren't really anyone's priorities. Nearly all candidates are talking about mega tax cuts, with some bandying about promises equivalent to the annual spend of the NHS. We see plenty of posturing about the EU and the European Court of Human Rights. There are attacks on trans people from all candidates, save Tom Tugendhat and Grant Shapps (pronouns they/them), and the thin Tory commitment to net zero is also in their sights. Where do you suppose these sit in the issues most "normal people" care about? Looking at data from a fortnight ago, the economy (i.e. the cost of living crisis) is top. This is followed by health, immigration, and the environment. Tax is only a pressing issue for 15% of people, and the war on woke doesn't even feature. Why are leading Tory figures so at odds with the country?

There are conjunctural explanations, and there are structural explanations. Both of which are true. The first is obvious: the candidates are pitching to their electorate. These are colleagues of the Parliamentary Conservative Party and the membership - whose size we will find out very soon. Both audiences incentivise performative right wingery, because this more or less reflects their prejudices and outlooks. During the agonies prior to the election, Boris Johnson saw off what was left of organised liberal Toryism through splits, expulsions, and resignations. In their place the party scoured the barrel to find any nodding donkey who'd sign up to the Brexit deal. Many of these turned out to be utter dross, (sex offenders, anyone?), but the party was desperate and so CVs weren't vetted too closely. And as the party had turned decidedly right in the wake of the referendum, we got perhaps the most right wing parliamentary party in Tory history. This in mind, how might you pitch your tent if you are someone like Jeremy Hunt who campaigned for remain and has cultivated an undeserved 'sensible person' image during the last three years? By promising to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol, deporting refugees to Rwanda, and appointing the always-awful Esther McVey as deputy Prime Minister.

Closely related to this are ambitions that fall short of leadership. Do the likes of Shapps, Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch, and Reham Chisti (who?) stand a chance? I doubt it, but for them it's about carving bigger roles out or preserving their status as a big beast in the Tory jungle. Shapps, for instance, despite forswearing the bigoted anti-trans obsessions of fellow MPs has made much play of his desire to crush the RMT. Perhaps he'll be given a free hand under whoever takes Number 10.

The membership are little better. Already ageing and politically out-of-touch before the EU referendum, the polarisation of the Brexit years has chased off all but the true believers and determined politics climbers. If the Tories' disproportionate support among the old and retired make them less representative of the country as a whole than Labour, the party membership is at an even greater remove than the average person strolling down the street. With The Mail, Express, and The Sun their windows on the world is it really much of a shocker that the Tory hopefuls are appealing almost entirely within this twisted imaginary? No. Political science isn't rocket science, and this much should be obvious for anyone making a professional career out of studying politics.

And then there are the structural issues which, for analytical clarity, can be subdivided in two. The first of these is denialism. A small part of Johnson's success was his astute reading of what Brexit meant for many of its supporters. It was a protest against a country that, they believed, was going to the dogs. By electing someone who could knock heads together, a Britain they felt more secure in was possible. I.e. One that was whiter, more monolingual and monocultural, but where one could feel safe knowing Britain was secure as an independent and unique nation. For Johnson, this also meant a (weak) modernisation project to spruce up the neglected, deindustrialised corners of the country. He failed thanks to the tensions within the Tory coalition, not least thanks to the propertied interests of major Tory donors. And so prevarication, dithering, and stagnation has been the hallmark of this government. The problems we have now - the profit-price spiral (sure to be exacerbated by candidates' desires to cut corporation tax), galloping energy and food costs, the stubborn refusal of Covid to go away, the lack of progress on climate change, and the suffusion of Tory politics by sleaze to an extent that makes the 1990s look squeaky clean, these aren't just Johnson's responsibility. They're the fault of each and every member of his cabinet and all Tory MPs, none of whom have lifted a finger to challenge this state of affairs. Therefore the chase for tax cuts is displacement activity, of casting around for issues save the real problems facing the country. Problems they are on the hook for.

The second is the Tories as a class party. As an institution, the Tories condense and articulate the interests of capital. Not evenly and often not directly, but over the course of its history the Tories have prosecuted the bourgeois interest by maintaining the state. After 1979, this has taken a more authoritarian direction. Its class character has become more obvious as coercion was deployed against the labour movement and working class communities, particularly those in which minority ethnicities are concentrated. The Tories also pioneered a labyrinthine system of economic and social governance that undermines collective resistance by making it more difficult to imagine in the first place. And they have used legislation to shackle trade unions, criminalise protest, and reduce sections of our class to destitution through punitive welfare settlements. Their jobs is to keep wage labour - us - passive, quiescent, and compliant. Each of the candidates have to show the Tory base that matters - big capital - that they're a safe pair of hands where the management of labour is concerned. Braverman talks up social security "as a choice" made by the indolent, with the logic being that if claiming is tough people are more likely to accept the abundance of minimum wage jobs on offer, undermining the (potentially strong) bargaining power of labour as a whole. Likewise the obsession with tax cuts isn't just so bosses can pocket more cash. Paying for it requires an offensive against public sector workers, the strongest remaining bastion of mass trade unionism in this country. The Tories get to see off a potential threat, hundreds of thousands flood the dole queues, and the availability of labour undercuts wage claims. Of course, the possibility of pulling this off is a different proposition - but making the tax pledge tells of their readiness to discipline the workers at capital's behest.

However, what both sets of considerations, the conjunctural and the structural, show is little awareness of the creeping crisis of decline gnawing at the Tories. None of the candidates seem aware there's even a problem. By ignoring the British people's priorities so publicly now, they're hardly endearing themselves. There are no appetites for more cuts. The national debt ballooning off the backs of Covid and Brexit mismanagement is not matched for a popular enthusiasm for Dave/Osborne-style austerity. And the benefits most working age people get from pennies in the pound tax cuts are quite marginal and barely scratch the dents inflation is making on the standard of living. In other words, even the 'mass' part of the candidates' programmes for capital tickle the peccadilloes of a distinct minority only. And so the crisis of Tory political reproduction continues apace. Older people pass away, and their voters are not being replaced like for like among the under 50s - and aren't likely to when it's their turn to retire. Whichever horror wins the Tory pageant is surely going to spend the next couple of years inflicting misery, driving public services into the ground, and make the lot of our people worse. But as they do so, they're making their own collapse more rapid and more complete.

Image Credit


Phil said...

Yes, I know the collage has Steve Baker in it (who isn't running) and not Priti Patel (who is). Blame the image source.

Robert Dyson said...

A1 dear Phil. I too thought the 'tax cuts' have no appeal for the many. Also, a lot of that 'debt' is money created by the Bank of England, it does not have to be repaid, just taxed away if inflationary. To kick start the economy we need massive state investment in the obvious things that will create useful work for many all over the country and soak up the cash preventing inflation from local money supply. We would need a lot of workers so sending people to Rawanda is a criminal waste of a key resource - people.

Blissex said...

«Older people pass away, and their voters are not being replaced like for like among the under 50s - and aren't likely to when it's their turn to retire.»

Sometimes our blogger forgets that it is not old age as such that motivates to vote Conservative, but rentierism, and that therefore in first approximation the number of tory voters is proportional to the number of property owners, not of old people, and that properties are inherited. That will still shrink the number of property owners, because:

- When properties are inherited they are often sold for the proceeds to be split among multiple heirs.

- But those proceeds are often used as deposits to buy new properties by the heirs.

- But even with those deposits many properties are too expensive.

- That can be countered by buying smaller rather than fewer properties.

But still I think that in the long term property ownership will become more concentrated, because only property owners and their heirs will be able to come up with the deposits to buy properties.

The other mechanism that might reduce the number of tory voters is that the second category is those deriving their rents not from property but from pensions:

* The number of people with relatively good fixed income "final salary" pensions is shrinking, because such schemes have been mostly closed.

* Even if fixed income pensioners will shrink, more pensioners are relying on variable income from share-based personal pension accounts. These have more of an interest than fixed-income one in general growth, but they conversely also have more of interest in growth of profits at the expense of wages.

* The overall number of would-be pensioners however is still increasing, because of longer lives among women and the middle classes.

* However more and more older people will have to continue to work longer because their share-based personal pension accounts will be too small to retire on.

* Demographics also might indicate that the ratio among voters who work and voters who draw pensions might increase.

Overall I think that the percentage of pensioners, especially fixed-income ones, among voters will slowly shrink.

Anonymous said...

We can only hope that their collapse is swift and final. Sadly, the party of the nearly dead is run by the undead and as all horror fans know, trying to finish them off terminally is very tricky. You think you have ended them and back they come, lurching out of the grave and tottering towards you, rotting face in a rictus grin. Sunlight, garlic, silver, fire - we try them all and yet back they come. Only a stake through the heart made of unicorn ivory dipped in virgin's blood will finally end their relentless march.

Blissex said...

«I too thought the 'tax cuts'»

The main "ask" of tory voters is "better" property prices, and all candidates don't mention that because it is a given: a Conservative leader, just like a New Labour or LibDem leader, will do whatever it takes to support and increase rents and prices of property. The same for more "affordable" wages.

So the various Conservative candidates have to find something else on which to "differentiate" their appeal, and the major thing that Boris did that annoyed tory voters was to increase taxes (even if only on workers, not rentiers), and since the current candidates are running as "not Boris", they think that is an issue they can use.

BTW the differentiator that New Labour is instead going to use is "integrity", because they also of course give for granted that property prices must become "better" and wages more "affordable", and I cannot imagine any differentiator for the LibDems, because they have given up on both PR (since 2011) and EU membership (since 2019).

«have no appeal for the many»

As to "the many", no other major party represents their interests, so the Conservatives don't need to compete for their votes. Also the Conservatives have an 80 seat majority with 43% of the votes, so all they need is to motivate their existing voters to turn out, they don't need to appeal to new voters.

Ken said...

I caught the tail end of a report on this. I only paid attention when the correspondent claimed that the Tory party electorate numbered 80,000 or so. The last time I read an estimate it hovered around 120,000 - 140,000, but nobody seems quite sure. Whatever the actual number, if, and when the party actually declares this, it points to the cataclysmic decline you have been writing about for some time.
I saw one symbol of this at the last GE when the Tory candidate was out leafleting on his own. No, he didn’t win.

Blissex said...

And just to confirm that the coup was done to put a "whig" globalist in power in the Conservatives, rather than wait for Starmer's successor to be competitive, here is "The Guardian"'s Simon Jenkins praising and endorsing Sunak as the Liberal thatcherite of choice:
Sunak remains the only candidate to have conveyed a steady competence in one of the toughest offices of state. His straight-talking and lack of evasive cliche in public have been a breath of fresh air. His final days at the Treasury saw him adamant in weighing the needs of public spending against the dangers of deficit and indebtedness. He fought Johnson’s plea for tax cuts to aid his personal survival. Sunak’s calm intelligence is desperately needed at this critical juncture in British government.

I guess that the long term plan is EFTA/EEA membership, which might be a silver lining (at least for us "Remainers") in this farce:
If Boris goes, Brexit goes, says Lord Heseltine
Tory grandee says Prime Minister’s departure likely to lead to shake-up in relations with EU
Voters are already beginning to join them, even as Starmer insists that the subject is essentially closed. The politicians might not want to say it, but this week is a milestone in the fate of Brexit. The prime author of Britain’s exit from the EU has fallen: the standing of his calamitous project is heading the same way.

The farce of using comically stupid trivialities like this for a palace coup:
they should let the cameras in so we can have one of those post-toppling-of-the-dictator videos, showing the golden wallpaper and the £3,675 serving trolley.

To bring about a major political change is rather depressing.

Blissex said...

«We would need a lot of workers so sending people to Rawanda is a criminal waste of a key resource - people.»

It is very easy to get a lot of workers in the "free markets" way: just pay them better than other countries. I am pretty sure that plenty of canadian, german, norwegian, japanese and swiss workers would emigrate to work in the UK if wages here were better than in their countries.

What I think you are implying is that "We would need a lot of [lower wage] workers".

Dave Levy said...

I wrote a reply on ny blog.

If cutting tax, why corporation tax, it's not what businesses want today?

Where will those MPs who need the levelling up program go? I can't see an obvious place but I point out that levelling up budgets are adversely effected by Brexit and the loss of EU regional and social funds. But no Tory is going to point this out.

David Lindsay said...

Boris Johnson seemed to take it as a given that that was his last Prime Minister's Questions, perhaps even as an MP, since he is determined to have a Resignation Honours List, and no one would put it past him to ennoble himself. And when Johnson said that his successor might be elected by acclamation, then he could have had only one possible candidate in mind.

This was always going to be Rishi Sunak's moment. The disappearance of Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl from BBC iPlayer is a track-covering confirmation that, since it was broadcast when he was not quite 21, Sunak must have been handpicked as the generational voice of the haute bourgeoisie when he was still in his teens. Yesterday, the tribal elders of the Tory Deep State were out in force at his campaign launch. A few hours later, needing 20 votes to stay in the race, he turned out to be 20 votes ahead of his nearest rival.

It has ever been thus. No one becomes Prime Minister in his early forties by any means than this. There are still those who keep up the pretence that Tony Blair was politically "a late developer", but it is quite some late developer who becomes an MP at 30 and Prime Minister at 43, the age at which David Cameron also attained the Premiership, in his case after a mere nine years in the House of Commons. Sunak would beat all of that, though. An MP of only seven years' standing, he is all of 42 years old.

Blissex said...

«the loss of EU regional and social funds»

I despair when as an europhile I read anti-brexit arguments so blatantly ridiculous: the UK overall was a net payer! So the issue is *obviously* not how much cash the other Eu countries were donating to the poor region of the UK, but the non-cash and political benefits purchased by that net payment to the the EU budget.

As to this statement on the blog:

«meaningful levelling up programmes, which have been reduced to crude electoral bribes.»

The Conservatives (and not just them) are dedicated followers of the "Westminster model" of politics, as everybody should have figured out long ago

Stephen Bush "Politics" 2018-03-16 (NEW STATESMAN):
“One Tory minister in a safe seat told me that when she used to ask Osborne for something, he would first ask her how big her majority was — and then reply, with a smile, that it was too large for her enquiry to be worth considering.”
“Eight wards were selected as 'key wards' - in public it was claimed that these wards were subject to particular 'stress factors' leading to a decline in the population of Westminster. In reality, secret documents showed that the wards most subject to these stress factors were rather different, and that the eight wards chosen had been the most marginal in the City Council elections of 1986. [...]
In services as disparate as street cleaning, pavement repair and environmental improvements, marginal wards were given priority while safely Labour and safely Conservative parts of the city were neglected.[...]
In 1990, the Conservatives were re-elected by a landslide victory in Westminster, increasing their majority from 4 to 38. They won all but one of the wards targeted by Building Stable Communities policy.”

Old Trot said...

I agree with posters who say Sunak is the choice of the UK capitalist Deep State, and the Big Bourgeoisie generally , and their fully paid for professional political class of corrupt Tory MPs in the majority . And Sunak, although economically illiterate ('big ideas' - Freeports and UK becoming a cryptocurrency 'hub' FFS ! ) , is at least sane, unlike so many candidates. I predict though that the profound racism , and 'Daily Mail-ish' hatred and jealousy of rank and file Tory members for someone so over-privileged and tax-dodging and so deeply family connected to the fully globalised Big Bourgeois class , will NEVER be chosen by them as the Leader of their Party. On that, I think the far Right neoliberal nutter , Steve Baker, today, is quite correct. The Westminster MSM and Parliamentary bubble simply doesn't 'get' the mindset of the , quite elderly, Daily Mail and Express-reading, majority of their tiny member base out in the shires. I saw this very vividly in my recent local North Shropshire by-election. There was no way the very traditional North Shropshire Tory voting base was going to vote for a rich, Asian, Birmingham, lawyer, with no ties to the very parochial world of North Shropshire. And they didn't. Such was the arrogance of Tory HQ not to realise that localism and racism are alive and well amongst Tory voters - even if a few non-white MPs occasionally get parachuted into safe seats.. I think a white woman amongst the ghastly candidates will win - I just hope it ain't the insane , warmongering, Truss.