Whatever happened to the Conservative party? Not this week, but over the last twenty years? Geoffrey Wheatcroft asked this question in the Guardian this week, and it is a good one. Actually, he asked it a bit more forcefully than that:
Has what was the most successful political party in modern European history succumbed to some strange death wish, determined to tear itself to pieces and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?
By “successful,” he means that between 1886 and 1997 – 111 years – the Conservatives were in power in the UK for 79 of them, either alone or occasionally in coalition. Now, though, said Wheatcroft, it looked “like a fractious rabble”.
A different party
The obvious answer to his question is that that was a different Conservative party. Wheatcroft reminds us that it was inclusive and outward looking – think of One Nation Conservatism – and that these qualities enabled it to survive some deep splits (over the Corn Laws and appeasement, for example).
And the answer to the second question – where it went wrong – was with the Thatcher years. I know, that’s simplistic. More accurately, the realignment of politics and politicians with finance and banking, of which Thatcher was emblematic, instead of production and manufacturing, broke the link between party and country.
A social institution
In 1950, as Wheatcroft reminds us, the year of the highest election turnout in Britain’s history, the single constituency of Barnet, with 70,000 on its electoral roll, had a Conservative Party membership of 12,000. Nationally, the party had 2.7 million members. It wasn’t just a political party, it was a social institution. By 2005, that figure, for the whole country, was just above 250,000. Nine years on, the current figure is heading for half of that (opens pdf).
Into that large funding gap pours money from the finance sector, which obviously sees this as a good investment. Hedge funds have put up around £40m in party donations, and have received benefits – welfare benefits, if you like – of £145m.
Of course there are secular reasons why people stopped being members of political parties, but there are operational reasons as well. It is hard work having a membership base: you need to talk to it, you need to engage with it, you need to show that it is being listened to from time to time. It is much easier to have a breakfast with some hedgies, collect up the cheques at the end, and tweak the small print of some Treasury initiative to send them your thanks.
And so it’s not surprising that Cameron, in one of his endless “look-over-there” bits of political pantomime, keeps pointing at Labour’s union funding in the hope of distracting journalists and voters from the pocket he happens to be sitting in.
Wrecking the brand
What’s interesting about the Conservatives is both that the fall has been fast, and that in the process they have wrecked their brand.
Thatcher’s political calculation was ruthless: a split opposition gave her parliamentary majorities, and oil revenues a fiscal cushion, that she used to follow policies that were plainly divisive, of which the assault by the state on the miners’ union was only the most extreme. But that strategy was also built on a careful appeal, politically and economically, to the C2 social group – the skilled working class, as they were once known.
Part of the Thatcher trick was that she embodied both of the remaining elements of Conservative Party after it had dismantled the idea of One Nation Toryism. On the one hand there was the flag-waving “grocer’s daughter” from Grantham, insisting on English bottled water at her news conferences, who also presided over the rolling out of the market-led policies that were a platform for neoliberalism. Of course, the neoliberal part of that all but obliterated the patriotic part. (And perhaps symbolically, Buxton Water was acquired by Perrier in 1987; Malvern Water was produced by Coca-Cola.)
I’ve written here before that she might have regretted that: Anthony Barnett said “that she destroyed what she appeared to preserve.” Either way, roll forward 30 years and all of it has gone. The party confused its goals and its vision. There is no fiscal cushion, and no political strategy to manage this. There’s no story that appeals beyond the core support. Instead, the Conservatives have presided over a decomposition of the labour market that has hollowed out the skilled base that Thatcher appealed to, and now they squeeze the workers who have tumbled into the new casualised service jobs that have replaced them.
And the party has leaders who know that the only way to be elected is to put on a “one nation” front (because it’s the only way to create sufficient support: think “hug a hoodie“); the only way to keep the money flowing is to follow a City agenda; and the only way to keep your MPs and diminishing numbers of members happy is to play a patriotic “England My England” tune. The contradictions are immediate and glaring. The only way through is a constant triangulation between a set of worldviews that are deeply and fundamentally conflicted. When the leader runs out of tactical shuffles, the only way is out.
The ‘nasty party’
Clearly there is a market in being the “nasty party” – the Conservatives have been tracking in the polls at 30-32% for as long as I can remember. But it’s not enough to get elected to run a government, certainly not on your own. And what the Liberal Democrats have discovered through their involvement in the Coalition is that the Conservative brand really is nasty: well, it’s certainly been toxic for them.
In passing, Ian Birrell, former Cameron scriptwriter, unbelievably tried to argue this week that the “nasty” label had somehow been pinned on the Conservatives by the Liberal Democrats. He maybe ought to try and make that argument to the disabled carers screwed by the bedroom tax or people forced to move 100 miles by the cuts to housing benefit.
A strange death
In the meantime the first past the post system has led to the all-but disappearance of Conservatives in Scotland (they get about 12% under Scotland’s more proportional system), and weak representation in Wales. But when it comes to being the English tribal party, the Conservatives are always going to be second best to UKIP. It’s as if, to borrow a phrase, they have lost an Empire but have never found a role. In the Spectator, the conservative journalist Fraser Nelson argues that “there has been a great reversal in British politics: the left is now united and the right is split.”
Maybe, as Birrell argued, the best thing that could happen to resolve these contradictions is for the Conservative party to split (the word he used was “cathartic”). Which underlines, perhaps, the speed of the fall. It’s only a generation since John Major surprised people when he was caught cursing the Europhobe “bastards” in his Cabinet – those harbingers of the current Conservative crisis.
The title of this post harks back to George Dangerfield’s book (pdf review) on the collapse of the Liberal Party as a dominant force in British politics. In 1906, the Liberals won a landslide election victory; they never won another majority. Of course, his argument has been challenged by historians since, but his underlying message still stands. Political parties, even ones as successful as the Conservatives have been, do get beached by social change; they lose their social and political base; they slide away into the margins. The Conservatives’ decline is less dramatic than that of the Liberals, a hundred years ago. But we could be watching a similar moment.
The image at the top of the post is from “Airbrushed for Change,” at mydavidcameron.com, and is used with thanks.