Sunday 2 July 2023

Making Sense of Tory "Corbynism"

I regret to inform you that John Rentoul has written another terrible article about the Conservative Party. Telling us to "beware of Tory Corbynism", he notes the manoeuvres of Lord David Frost. Being an approved candidate, he's on the hunt for a safe seat. And when he's found it, he'll dump the peerage in the canal and make a play for the leadership of the party. Never mind that Rishi Sunak had to spend time undoing the Brexit mess he made. In the whacky world of Tory politics, the real world counts for nothing. Or so we're led to believe.

Why is Rentoul's take so bad? It's because he doesn't even attempt to get beneath the surface of what's going on, relying on lazy tropes that have long circulated among his milieu of commentators, verbally incontinent MPs, and establishment-friendly academics. He first raises the idea of a Tory bounce back. That if (when) Labour forms the new government, Keir Starmer and co. are going to have a tough first term with public finances being what they are and the economy in the toilet. There's a chance for the Tories to come back quickly if they stick with Sunak. How? Rentoul doesn't explain, because such an assertion dissolves when it's put to the analytical test. Would mortgage-holders wistfully look back to the time when the Tories stiffed them to get rid of Starmer? Or working age people in general miss the rocketing energy bills and the rampant price gouging by supermarkets? Only if the electorate lost their memory. And then there's the question of who's going to vote for them. After a term of a Starmer government, there will be fewer Tory-supporting pensioners about and the rising generation will never vote for blue in big numbers. In these conditions, a historic opportunity awaits the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

And now for the main event. For Rentoul, the "psychology of defeat" means the Tories won't take the sensible Sunak road. Instead "recrimination and magical thinking" will prevail, because this was already evident when the membership voted in Liz Truss. Hit with the trauma of defeat, the Tories will turn inward in a right wing reflection of what happened In Labour when it elected Jeremy Corbyn. This means the party can look forward to going nowhere fast. This might and will be true, but it's apparently too much for a man who makes a handsome living from writing about politics to take the trouble to understand why this happens. Those mad head members, eh?

As argued here many times here and at length in the book, the long-term decline of the Tories manifests itself in the party's crisis of political reproduction. The coalition of propertied pensioners that are the bedrock of their coalition are not replacing themselves like-for-like precisely because of the policies the Tories have enacted to keep this constituency together. By 2017, the limits of relying on pensioners and older working age people was starting to show. Theresa May hit upon the idea of using Brexit as a glue for bringing together mass support, but this could only work if the opposition was split and Labour played ball. Corbyn did not and May lost her slender majority. Two-and-a-half years on, Boris Johnson went to the country using exactly the same strategy. And this time it worked because the opposition was disunited and riven with various flavours of overturning the referendum result. Johnson effectively maxed out the strategy. But since then, you could say the Tories have been looking for a new strategy that can save their bacon. As venal and awful Johnson was, he understood that his government had to be seen to be doing something. Hence the boosterist rhetoric, the brinkmanship with the EU, the levelling up waffle, and the selection of new scapegoats that can fill the space left by Brexit's (political) resolution. It was a coherent strategy, albeit part-derailed by Covid and finally driven off the embankment by Johnson's "colourful character".

Fast forward to last year's leadership contest and the options open to members as determined by the ever-so-wise parliamentary party. As much as I disagreed with Truss's prospectus it was not how Rentoul imagined it. I.e. Sunak's sensible centrism vs "madness". With the strategic impasse the Tories were in, Sunak offered boring technocracy - a politics of doing nothing - plus bad jokes and side dishes of racism and transphobia. Truss, minus the gags but with "interesting positioning" offered something that could get the membership excited. Her prospectus for tax cuts, and what would turn out to be Toryism at its most naked, recommended itself because plenty had swallowed 40-odd years of nonsense that this would boost economic growth. If Truss could unlock that then almost all the other problems would disappear. It was a load of rubbish and, on this occasion, Sunak's pro-Treasury critique of her plans were right. But from the standpoint of forging a way forward it made more political sense than steady-as-she-goes briefcase government. So no. Mistaken, yes. Reckless? Absolutely. But not mad.

Rentoul's detour into pop psychology further demonstrates a poor grasp of politics. Why, after an earth-shattering defeat might a party desire a return to fundamentals? He'll never ask this question and give an honest answer because that might mean a reckoning with Corbynism as it was. It's much better to maintain it was a cranky cult enraptured by purist ideology and the Magic Grandpa. The same is true with the Tories. Looking back at the period between 1997 and 2005 when the Tories were the down and outs of British politics, the accepted explanation for this was, again, madness. This is the view favoured by the country's premier authority on matters Tory, Tim Bale, and it's the line pushed in his otherwise excellent history of the Conservative Party. But, again, this explanation leaves a lot to be desired. For one, when a party suffers a severe reverse the return to basics can consolidate a base that has suffered a shock. The Tories in 1997 knew they were in for a pummelling, but not the wipe out they got. Their doubling down on euroscepticism made total sense in this context. Furthermore, many Tory politicians had convinced themselves that their stance was popular. The right wing press, which in the Tory imaginary is seen as the authentic voice of Middle England (and not the reflection of their own prejudices), echoed and fed that view back to them. And in William Hague's main electoral test prior to the 2001 election - the 1999 EU elections - the Tory vote surged and their MEPs doubled while Labour lost more than half of theirs. UKIP also broke into the political scene for the first time, returning three MEPs. From within the Tory party, not only did their embrace of euroscepticism consolidate their base, the case could be made that under certain circumstances, obsessing over Europe can win elections. Understandable, even if it was wrong.

Therefore, assuming the Tories don't win the next election, I agree with Rentoul they'll turn right. But this is because of the political sociology of their position, not them being thick or irrational. They're in for a shattering defeat. But they have their narrative of betrayal, and a mythology based on fighting a cultural war election and winning an election on that basis. If the Tories go for David Frost, or Kemi Badenoch, or even the grotesquerie of a Suella Braverman leadership, it's because of their reading of the political situation. And if this can't be understood by mega bucks politics commentators, it's high time they found themselves a new profession.

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Dipper said...

'The sensible Sunak Road'

That's the one where inflation goes out of control and the Bank of England spend time announcing that people of any gender can get pregnant instead of doing their job. That's the one where we are regulated up the kazoo and by complete coincidence have practically no growth. That's the one where we have no control over who and how many immigrants may come to live here. And that's the one where the OBR thinks that people do not respond to economic incentives (reducing tax does not mean people will work harder. So why not tax at 100%?)

Everyone who engages with the Blob gets burnt.

Bring back Liz Truss.

And don't get too exited you Lefties. Starmer loves the Blob just as much as Sunak does.

Anonymous said...

Dipper's comments seem to be getting more and more shrill and deranged, which is quite the achievement really. One hopes that his/her loved ones will check in on him/her, and perhaps have some hard conversations.

On a loosely connected note, did you see this, Phil?

You could get some column out of that, I feel. It's so painfully obvious that Tory Boy's "argument" consists entirely of uncomfortable contortions whilst trying to avoid saying the quiet part out loud: "we don't want the workers to get uppity". And in doing so, he's now got himself a Beeb article on the internet record, pitting clear hard numbers against his squirming class politics.

Anonymous said...

I think you may have misread Rentoul's article. It seems much less like an analysis of the Tory internal political situation, than it does like an attempt to influence that situation. In character, and with some irony, it's remarkably similar to risible weaselwaffles penned by the likes of Nick Cohen in the weeks following Corbyn's election as Labour leader. Diatribes which made little real sense on the surface, and were obviously completely disconnected from reality, but whose real content was entirely between the lines: the ruling class will not stand for this.

This time around, there's one very striking difference, which is that the boogeyman being invoked without being named is a genuinely scary one. The disaster scenario for Rentoul's bubble is the one where the Tories perform a straight swap of their outgoing grey voter coalition for an angry simpleton coalition - mostly white, mostly male, and capable of attracting a sizeable number of young voters; and subsequently pick up a huge public swing to the far right in response to the equally huge disappointment of the Starmer government.

JN said...

Dipper: "Bring back Liz Truss."

In case anyone was ever tempted to take you seriously! I mean, Liz Truss seems to understand economics roughly as well as my parent's wee dog does; she's a very nice wee dog, but I wouldn't want her to be Prime Minister.