Sunday 1 January 2023

Digging the Tory Grave

The Conservative Party is going to lose the next election, but we don't know by how much. It could skirt the outright death of the party, or if they're lucky the Tories might only face a 1997-style wipe out. With Rishi Sunak staring down a barrel, the new year will mark the prominence of a new style of politics article: how the government might avoid its fate. And before Big Ben had bonged, the Tories' pet academic, Matthew Goodwin got in with the first hot take. Writing for The Sun, he had three, my sides are splitting, "Rishilutions" that would help the Tories prepare for the next election.

He starts off empathising with his audience. He understands how thoroughly fed up people with the country's slide into economic and social decrepitude. But to turn things around, the first piece of advice is telling Sun readers that the Tories need to take a stand against pay rises. This is framed as "unrealistic" and something pushed by "unions" as opposed to workers themselves. This is clever, clever politics because as inflation falls along with interest rates (which aren't coming down any time soon), the Prime Minister will be able to say to the country that the worst is behind us and Keir Starmer can't be trusted to run with the recovery. Genius. This might catch with some of the paper's readers, especially if they're retired and are at a remove from the workplace, but it certainly won't with the under 50s.

Goodwin's second recommendation seemingly sits awkwardly with the first: win back working class punters. He suggests they've done a runner from the Tory party not because it's balancing the books of their self-inflicted crisis on their backs, but because they're paying too much tax and the borders are seemingly open to all-comers. Playing the racist blame game, as per wastrel backbenchers and the editorial offices of every right wing paper is what will win them round. Of course, here Goodwin is reheating his discredited and long-refuted argument that working class people are racist and are gagging for right wing populist politics. He might have trouble interpreting simple bits of data, but as a political "scientist" he knows actual working age voters went for Labour over the Tories even in 2019, and that "the workers" he talks about are retired people. This is important when it comes to interpreting voting behaviour, but less so when reinforcing Tory talking points.

And where do we go for the final recommendation? What Sunak needs to do is channel his own inner Boris Johnson. Goodwin says people don't want to hear about Britain's problems. Instead we need a cheerleader in Number 10, someone relentlessly optimistic about the country. Yes, The Sun has paid money to someone who's advice is that the Prime Minister ignores the NHS meltdown and pretend everything is hunky dory. Concluding, he writes that if Sunak "does all these things he might not only find the people thank him for it but might even be tempted to crack out the champagne."

What risible drivel. But it conforms to a couple of patterns in Goodwin's work. First is his right wing freelancing. For someone who has moaned about woke universities when the media commissions come calling, nowhere has he ever openly declared himself a supporter of the Conservative Party. This basic courtesy is side stepped every time he puts on his polprof persona to give his writing the faux authority of expertise. Second, whether it was Revolt on the Right, the book that made him, or his frequent forays into punditry his argument has always tailed establishment common sense. His junk argument about UKIP uniquely appealing to working class voters merely reinforced a decade of Westminster anxiety that was panicky about and fascinated with how the far right did well in some traditional Labour-voting areas. Without once realising 'Labour area' does not mean 'everyone here votes Labour'. And this Sun piece is no different. In what reality is Sunak not hammering striking workers, pushing culture war bollocks, and carrying on as if the country is not beset with difficulties? The Tories are well ahead of Goodwin's resolutions. All he's done is regurgitate Sunak's strategy for our rapidly failing currant bun. He's not actually said anything new.

It's also an approach that is exacerbating the crisis of Tory political reproduction. The Tories need to win younger voters over because their mass constituency, with propertied pensioners at its heart, has locked generations out of property ownership. Becoming conservative requires the means, and it's the Conservatives who are frustrating the acquisition of means. And so the constituency is in decline. If this wasn't bad enough, the Tories' beggar-thy-neighbour politics is at cross purposes with the common sense of the rising generations of workers. And last, just look out of the window. The Tories' are attacking every public service, have declared war on all workers, are victimising every minority they think they can get away with, and are going backwards on climate change. No party can salt the ground so thoroughly and expect themselves to reap the green shoots of political recovery in short order.

The problem the Tories have isn't just for the next election, but for all elections. Where will their future support come from? The memories of their governments since 2010 won't fade, nor are they likely to be forgotten when current Tory voters pass their property down to their children. This is the more interesting question to consider, but one the likes of Goodwin will never face up to. Not just because his limited imagination isn't up to it, but because it means acknowledging that conservatism presently constituted, with its easy bigotries and divisive politics, is not long for the eternal sleep of the grave. Preferring to fight shy of his party's likely fate, all Goodwin has confirmed to the Tories that they've got the right spade and they should carry on digging.

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1 comment:

Robert Dyson said...

"Matthew James Goodwin is a British academic who is Professor of Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent".
Something is rotten in the University of Kent. I've seen more insightful comment from primary school children on TV.