Tuesday 9 July 2024

The Class Politics of the Tory Collapse

While there is a tone of ambiguity about Labour's election triumph, there is no such doubt about what happened to the Conservative Party last Thursday. 230 Tory careers went up in smoke as its vote more than halved compared to Boris Johnson's 2019 triumph. This is their lowest seat count since the 1832 Reform Act, which gave birth to the modern Conservatives, and at 6.8m votes their lowest level of popular support since the advent of universal suffrage in 1928. Indeed, you'd have to go back to 1923 under Stanley Baldwin to find them polling lower. They suffered a calamity where anti-Tory voters of the left and right prised them apart, leaving behind a bewildered and rudderless rump. Perhaps some of this pain might have been avoided had they read my book.

There are plenty of conjunctural factors that had a role in the Tories' electoral collapse, but what how did the party's crisis of political reproduction impact its evisceration? Five years ago, Johnson's championing of Brexit allowed him to configure class politics to the Conservatives' advantage. To remind ourselves, the base of mass conservatism was based on the differences between class cohorts. Or, to be more precise, the Tories hegemonised older people and particularly the retired. This has two components. First, because social location has the biggest impact on how one views the world, formulates one's interests, and draws political conclusions about it, the experience of being a pensioner is analogous to the existence of the small business person. Overwhelmingly dependent on their own labour for an "independent" livelihood, the petit bourgeois fear being out-competed, particularly by bigger businesses that can use their clout to cartelise markets and drive out smaller competitors. They may also have employees, which bring with them wage demands, motivational issues, and varying degrees of reliability. Both present existential dangers that might drive them out of business and into poverty or, horror of horrors, having to work for someone else. Hence, as generations of Marxist activists and thinkers know, they are disproportionately attracted to authoritarian politics.

This is relevant to understanding mass conservatism in Britain because being a pensioner means having a relatively fixed income. One cannot simply re-enter the work force to make good a financial crisis, and so one is at the mercy of events. This location is close to petit bourgeois anxiety and predisposes one toward a politics of certainty and is mirrored by an antipathy toward most things that epitomise change - migration, shifts in popular culture, growing acceptance of (previously) stigmatised minorities. This is exacerbated even more if one owns property. Thatcher's Right to Buy plus the cheap credit of the 1970s and 1980s created a generation of homeowners, but one does not become conservative magically because your name is on a title deed. It individuates and disciplines: individuates because one has an individual material interest in the appreciation of an asset, and disciplined because servicing the mortgage/debt makes collective action that much more difficult. It's almost as if the Conservative Party promoted home ownership with these in mind. Therefore, fast forward to the last decade the Tories' policy platform have catered to these interests and dispositions. Protect pensioners from the immediate consequences of austerity, not building houses to protect asset price inflation (many home owning pensioners voted Tory so they would have a handsome nest egg to hand down to their children and grandchildren, who've bore the brunt of the last 14 years), cut taxes, pull at the nostalgic heart strings of an independent Britain bestriding the world stage, and lash out at trans people and immigrants who are perceived as harbingers of unwelcome, dangerous social change.

There will always be plenty of old people, but the problems the Tories had with making this the basis of their voter coalition was its time limited character. Again, for two reasons. The first is the conservatising effects of age are breaking down. The experience of being a pensioner is weaker as a right wing authoritarian disposition than owning property, and the story of Britain since the mid-1990s has been a contraction in housing supply. Fewer homes overall were built, and the diminishing of council housing has led to the huge growth of the private rented sector. With asset price inflation surging well ahead of real wages, millions were and are locked out of acquiring property until much later in the life course. It meant couples aren't starting their families until later, if at all. Therefore these props of reproducing the Conservative vote were kicked away, and this has only continued under the last five Prime Ministers. Related to this were the everyday class politics of the Tories in office. Holding down wages, defending landlords, encouraging precarity, attacking the public sector, despoiling the environment, victimising minorities, this has been the lot of working age people and young people for 14 years. Their record is unlikely to convert many of this layer into Tory voters, even if millions of them do get on the housing ladder.

And then there are values. The Tories' coalition tends toward social conservatism, whereas the younger one is the more socially liberal one is likely to be. This is not the result of lefty teachers or liberal institutions, but is itself a consequence of class cohorts. As explained on many occasions here and elsewhere, what has become increasingly dominant in advanced capitalist societies since the war has been immaterial labour and the advent of the socialised workers. Displacing the industrial worker as the hegemonic working class figure, its object is the production of care, knowledge, services, subjectivities. I.e. The production of the social relations capitalism needs to reproduce itself as a social system. Therefore, as the generations have passed through the changed character of work, the traits selected by it - tolerance, sociability, networking, care - have come to the fore of popular consciousness. It has now become the spontaneous disposition for the majority of working age people, hence not only is the Conservative party's base in long-term decline, so is the basis for social conservatism. It follows that when the Tories victimise people, make draconian pledges, play divide and rule, and seek to cultivate the prejudices of their base this only serves to drive a wedge between themselves and the bulk of the population.

Bearing these processes in mind, in the book - the bulk of which was written when Johnson was at the height of his powers - suggested that if nothing went wrong, the Tories would be competitive in the 2024 election but that afterwards, from the late 2020s onwards, unless they underwent root and branch change winning an election would only get more difficult. Party Gate was not an inevitably, nor was the Liz Truss debacle, nor for that matter was the complacent negligence of Rishi Sunaks year-and-a-half at the helm. But what they did was solidify support for the broad left of centre among working age people, driving Tory numbers there to historic lows, and alienated a swathe of its softer support among the coalition built by Theresa May and Johnson. Who knew that cuts to public provision the elderly are disproportionately dependent on and continued attacks on their younger family members would undo the fealty of millions of them? Tory accelerationism ensured the consequences of their party's decline bit earlier than it had to.

Does the rise of Reform bother this picture much? Standing against them everywhere it could was always going to cause the Tories trouble, but Nigel Farage's entry into the election fray made them much more potent than would have been the case. Of the 230 seats gone, the Reform's was greater than the difference between the Tory vote and that of their victorious opponent in 170 of them. It wasn't Morgan McSweeney that won Labour its famous victory. Arguably it was Messrs Farage, Tice, and Anderson. Ditto for the Liberal Democrats' triumphant comeback and for the Greens taking the two Tory-held seats they targeted. Finally winning his place in the Commons, Farage has vowed that he's "coming for Labour next". In reality, while one should not be complacent about the poisoning effect their breakthrough could have on political discourse, especially considering they came second in 98 Labour seats and provide a handy excuse for Keir Starmer to go with "socially conservative" authoritarian politics on immigration. But electorally, Reform has probably maxed out their reach and is only capable of making inroads into Labour held seats in a smattering of places. Their vote is less than what UKIP polled in 2015, despite all the advantages of tacit press backing. And you can forget the ridiculous hype about Farage finding an echo among young people. Their numbers here show the same incredibly low levels of support as per the Tories, and like the Tories their voter coalition is of broadly the same sociological character and are on a declinist trajectory.

This is the problem the Conservatives have got. The recriminations and excuses have started to come forward, but it's not the case the cataclysm has hit and now is the moment to rebuild. The dynamics of long-term Tory decline have not abated. The antipathy of rising generations is not vanishing, nor will it. The Tories and Reform rest on a set of values opposed to the majority of the population, and articulate interests seriously at odds with it. On the basis of the politics both are proffering there are no new people to be won over. If they decide to stick with their current platforms, which Reform are bound to, then some sort of alliance between the two might make them competitive at the next election. Especially as Labour aren't likely to put on support after four or five years of government, and whose campaign will probably have to take on the appearance of 412 by-elections. But time is against both parties. If the Tories want to recover and become a party of government again, they're going to have to completely renovate their politics and reforge a mass conservatism that intersects with the socially liberal default that is already here and is only getting stronger. But also this conservatism cannot be as brutally and as sectionally divisive as it has been these last 45 years. The basis for a two-nation Toryism is receding with the generation that voted for it.

At the end of the first edition of the book, I laid out the challenge facing the party and observed that no matter their difficulties, "no one got rich betting against the Tories." Fewer then five years on from a victory that was supposed to see the Tories dominate this decade, their party is broken, their coalition eviscerated and split, and the way back is not obvious to anyone in their ranks. There hasn't been a worse time to be a Conservative, and long may it remain so.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

The downside of this of course is Starmer’s Labour think they can do as they like and won't lose. Unfortunately what they like is right-wing.

Phil said...

There's a bit of bait-and-switch going on in this post - yes, the Tory vote collapsed to what was effectively an all-time low, but when you get into the broader processes of de/recomposition you need to be looking at the Right as a whole. Whose vote share is well ahead of Labour's (38% vs 33.7%), and only a little behind the combined vote share of of Labour and the Greens (the only party consistently to the Left of Labour), which is 40.1%.%). 38% from 44% in 2017 and 45% in 2019 is a substantial decline, but it's not a collapse.

Also, "Labour aren't likely to put on support after four or five years of government", as you say, and 33.7% is a very low base to decline from! It'll be essential that they hegemonise (or otherwise steal votes from) the Liberal centre, the Green left or both - and even that won't guarantee success if the Right manages to get its act together and run under one banner.

But what do I know, I was predicting the Tories would get 28-30% and Labour 36%, and that FPTP woule make it a close result.

Billy Haywood said...

"The Tories and Reform rest on a set of values opposed to the majority of the population, and articulate interests seriously at odds with it."

Much of this is true but this may be explained less by the influence of 'lefty teachers' and more by the fact that over the past thirty years there has been a revolution in the proportion of young people accessing further & higher education, such that there is now a very significant correlation between level of education and political outlook (voting behaviour).

It is interesting that while younger educated people will vote for the more 'progressive' parties, the Tories & Reform attract an older and less educated cohort of voters. It is worth remembering that many (80+%) of the the 65+ age-group would have attended a secondary modern and left school at 15. Unless they engaged in trade union struggles or participated in local issues, their formal political education would have been non-existent. As the social historian David Kynaston points out in his excellent book 'A Northern Wind, Britain 1962-65' ".....despite a growth in youth culture, young voters were not fundamentally different from the rest of the electorate in their attitudes to politics.....a combination of social and institutional conservatism with a diffuse political irritation" (p.416). One might draw the conclusion that the great majority of the 65+ (boomer?)age-group were always socially conservative.

However, this doesn't explain class interests. Dan Evan's excellent book (A Nation of Shopkeepers. The unstoppable rise of the petty bourgeoisie) provides a pertinent explanation for the link between the material interests of a significant cohort of the electorate and their voting behaviour. Shop keepers, the self-employed builder, hairdressers, café owners, small business people etc want less regulation and to pay less tax. Moreover, they are resentful of those people that don't - like them - exist in the hard material world of tight profit margins. In the absence of a credible right-wing Tory party, the Reform party will continue to hover-up the votes of this class.

As Evans points out, the petty bourgeoisie are a significant cohort that currently are angry, unpredictable and prone to knee-jerk violent political action. Much of the labour of the petty bourgeoisie, particularly in the service sector, will be 'immaterial'(?) but that wont necessarily lead them towards a 'progressive' disposition. On the contrary, the political outlook for this growing class is reactionary. And the outlook for Labour, never mind the Tories, aint good!

Anonymous said...

Here's a little something else that's worth a passing mention.

If Corbynism hadn't been decisively torpedoed first, then Tufton Street would never have dared to detonate the Truss bomb. Propertied class interests would still be standing together against the common, most feared enemy. Clown Prince Boris would still be welded to Number 10, and would remain so for as long as the forces of darkness united could keep him there. Few would have heard about his mid-pandemic parties. The Tory trajectory might have remained more closely in line with Phil's predictions.

So Corbynism achieved that much at least. It forced the Tory interest groups into a blundering panic, and then its defeat let them relax enough to turn on themselves.

Blissex said...

«The unstoppable rise of the petty bourgeoisie) provides a pertinent explanation for the link between the material interests of a significant cohort of the electorate and their voting behaviour. Shop keepers, the self-employed builder, hairdressers, café owners, small business people etc want less regulation and to pay less tax.»

The small-business petty-bourgeoisie are of course thatcherites because they are also largely small employers so they want lower wages for others, but also because they are property owners, as was "Sierra man" discovered by Tony Blair so long ago (1992):

I was canvassing in the Midlands on an ordinary suburban estate. I met a man polishing his Ford Sierra, self-employed electrician, Dad always voted Labour. He used to vote Labour, he said, but he bought his own home, he had set up his own business, he was doing quite nicely, so he said I’ve become a Tory.

These are most of the exploitative classes (from "The Economist"...) not the petty-bourgeoisie (or the billionaires who use both categories as their electoral base), this is the big political problem: https://blissex.wordpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/07/polihousingoldpeoplebigmoney.jpg

They don't vote for thatcherism because they are "bad people" (racist, misogynist, authoritarian, transphobic, ...) they vote for thatcherism because they have made a lot of money from it. It's not complicated.

«created a generation of homeowners, but one does not become conservative magically because your name is on a title deed. It individuates and disciplines:»

That may be the psychology of it, but £30,000-50,000 a year of tax-free, property-free property gains for decades I suspect are enormously more important than “individuates and disciplines”; and there are very many people who are property owners, rely on property gains for their affluent living standards, and have fully paid off mortgages.

What really turns 70% of Right-To-Buy voters into tories is not property ownership in itself, or the thrill of betting 20 times their savings in a single investment in a single location, it is the massive government-generated work-free, tax-free gains, as I keep repeating, for example with the example a 79-year-old retired carpenter in Cornwall, from an article on "The Guardian" in 2022:

who bought his council house in Devon in the early 80s for £17,000. When it was valued at £80,000 in 1989, he sold up and used the equity to put towards a £135,000 fisherman’s cottage in St Mawes. Now it’s valued at £1.1m. “I was very grateful to Margaret Thatcher,” he said.

«It's almost as if the Conservative Party promoted home ownership with these in mind.»

My usual quote:

There were even prophetic council house sales by local Tories in the drive to create voters with a Conservative political mentality. As a Tory councillor in Leeds defiantly told Labour opponents in 1926, ‘it is a good thing for people to buy their own houses. They turn Tory directly. We shall go on making Tories and you will be wiped out.’ There is much of the Party history of the twentieth century in that remark.

Sean Dearg said...

Oh Bliss! It's like the world has stood still for you since 1990. Nothing has changed socially, politically or economically since then. Everything is easily explained by trite little anecdotes, offered up as pearls of wisdom.

"I spoke to a hard-working family man polishing his car..." and from that encounter I discovered the universal and eternal truth of politics. One that reinforced what had been revealed to me in 1926 by a Tory Councillor as he strode down from the high street bearing his tablets (which he intended to sell for a handsome profit).

What was true in 1926 is still as true 100 years later because nothing of substance has changed in our society in the ensuing century.

It must frustrate that you are driven to constantly repeat your message by the stubborn refusal of others to recognise your discovery of the ultimate truth of politics - that everything is always, and everywhere, about whether you own your own home or not. All nuance, all hopes, all values, beliefs, wishes, dreams, aspirations, principles, expectations can be distilled into this one simple question. Are you a home owner?

The coming armageddon matters little compared to a fall in house prices. We can relax and enjoy the collapse of our 'civilization' as the polycrisis blows it apart, provided we have our title deeds safely stashed.

Blissex said...

«your discovery of the ultimate truth of politics - that everything is always, and everywhere, about whether you own your own home or not.»

The laughable stupidity of this hallucination is particularly silly as it just after I have written as usual that mere ownership of a property has some but not that much influence on "Middle England" voters: "What really turns 70% of Right-To-Buy voters into tories is not property ownership in itself [...] it is the massive government-generated work-free, tax-free gains".
It may surprise those who hallucinate otherwise, but huge work-free tax-free property gains really matter to many people.

Having narrowly maintained their control of the council in the 1986 local elections, Conservative councillors initiated a programme of selling off council homes in eight marginal wards, in the belief that owner-occupiers were more likely to vote Conservative than council tenants. Hostels in the marginal wards were closed, with some homeless people moved into condemned accommodation. [...] In the key wards the aim was to sell 250 council homes a year at discounted prices, rather than re-letting them when they became vacant. It was hoped that these designated sales would give the Conservatives an electoral advantage in the next local elections, as owner-occupiers were considered more likely to vote Conservative than tenants. [...] 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 the building stable communities policy

I guess hallucinators have strong evidence that has changed dramatically since 1990.

Blissex said...

«What was true in 1926 is still as true 100 years later because nothing of substance has changed in our society in the ensuing century.»

Yet another hallucination: the person who wrote “There is much of the Party history of the twentieth century in that remark” wrote that in 2014, not in 1926, and it was a noted tory (Andrew Gimson) who wrote that, not me. If you think he was wrong to write that, let him know that you know better, teach him :-). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Gimson