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What is the future of the Conservative Party?

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As crisis becomes the norm, what is the future of the Tory Party? In this excerpt from Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain (2021), Phil Burton-Cartledge assesses the possible paths that the Tories could take in securing voters in future elections. 

It seems there are several substitutes the Tories can use to keep their people on side. They can simply carry on waving the flag while trumpeting Brexit’s success. Despite stories of the multiplication of red tape and added fees and delays on exporting into the EU’s economic area, unsurprisingly the Tory press have crowed about the EU’s difficulties sourcing COVID-19 vaccine and its humiliating climbdown following a dispute with drug firm AstraZeneca. This, trumpeted Johnson’s client media, was proof that Brexit was correct and that leaving the EU has literally saved lives. The same outlets had comparatively little to say about 128,000 Covid deaths and one of the worst death rates in the world.

Stoking English/British nationalism might have further electoral uses too. Thanks to surging polling figures favouring Scottish independence and the SNP’s pledge to hold a further referendum, there is a rich seam of resentment here that the Tories are well placed to mine in England. As we saw in 2015, with some skill the Tory campaign was able to present Labour’s Ed Miliband being in de facto alliance with the SNP, and the price of a minority government supported by Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond would be the break-up of the UK and scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system. That Theresa May tried the same in 2017 and failed to make as much of an impression does not mean that the Tories will not try again. Casting Labour as somehow weak on the union and forgetting how the party blew up its Scottish vote and parliamentary representation in its defence dovetail nicely with Jeremy Corbyn-era attacks on Labour’s lack of patriotism and ‘softness’ on terrorism and threats posed by foreign powers. This offers the possibility of cohering a polarising dynamic ahead of the next election against Scottish nationalism and assorted other anti-England demons.

Then there is the predominance of social liberalism that the Tories can use (and are using) as a wedge issue. Concerns of the sort Ed West has with his prophecies of conservative doom lay the blame at liberal lecturers and lefty teachers brainwashing students and pupils. The so-called ‘War on Woke’ amounts to preserving as much of the prevailing political culture as it can so that scapegoating drives and Little England appeals, which have proven indispensable to the Tories over the years, retain their efficacy. Yet as a long-term investment goes, it is destined to repay diminishing returns. For one thing, getting right-wing journalists excited about exaggerated goings-on on university campuses does not have the same weight or resonance as Brexit did, which cut to the quick of national identity. For another, social liberalism and anti-Toryism do not persist in a rarefied realm of ideas cut off from the everyday. Both are rooted in class or, more precisely, the experience of class cohorts; the brute realities of the experience of work and living at the sharp end of sectional policy making are constituting the outlook of the rising generation. The old Marxist aphorism of an ounce of experience being worth a tonne of theory is beyond the ken of conservative thought – assuming one takes the fairy tales of Tory philosophy in good faith.

Then there is fiddling the electoral system. This was a stated objective of Tory governments since David Cameron’s election and remains a key objective of Boris Johnson’s. At the time of writing, the Boundary Commission is redrawing the political map of the UK to ‘equalise’ the population size of constituencies and diluting marginal and Labour-held seats, enhancing further the Tory advantage of its more efficiently spread voter base. Other measures such as compulsory identification checks, ostensibly to cut down on the microscopic instances of voter fraud, are also in play to suppress Labour voters. Gerrymandering the system to the Tories’ advantage is their confession that the Tories are ill-equipped to face the politics of their long-term decline, and entirely true to the custom and practice of the party. It is a short-term fix that puts off but does not prevent the inevitable pain.

The difficulty of these strategies, which are co-present and actively pursued, is their time-limited efficacy. This might not matter to Boris Johnson and many leading Tories in 2021 as the consequences of long-term decline are not about to immediately pressure their electoral performance. They can afford to kick the can down the road. It is for future Tory leaders to deal with. The question is how the Tories can escape the situation they have contrived for themselves. With the conservatising effects of age breaking down and Tory support destined not to replace itself like for like, the Tories must find new ways of winning over the rising generation of voters. Not a simple task.

There are three overlapping possibilities. The first is simply doing nothing. As the post-war generation pass away over the next few decades, their property will be inherited by their children in the Generation X and Millennial cohorts. Now with assets at their disposal, there is no reason for not believing a certain conservatisation could set in, albeit at a later stage of their adult lives than was the case with their parents and grandparents. Waiting is risky because this might not translate into support for the Tories given their collective memory of Conservative governments during their formative years, and how opposition parties might respond. The New Labour years showed that the party can intersect with and appeal to propertied layers by pandering to their peccadilloes and shielding them from the chill winds of globalisation. It might do the same again.

Another possibility is jump-starting the acquisition of property and getting many millions more younger workers onto the housing ladder. In the 2010s the Tories oversaw a complex array of part-rent–part-mortgage vehicles, help-to-buy initiatives with government loans and the extension of the right to buy to some housing association properties, none of which have made a dent in the housing market. Resistance abides in government to the building of council housing in sufficient quantities to meet demand, and the Tories have allowed developers to shirk requirements to provide social housing quotas in large developments. All the while planning laws have been watered down as if the problem is recalcitrant local authority opposition to more housing, not developers land banking or limiting construction to benefit from asset price inflation. If the Tories were to reverse course and mandate a national house building effort, then property acquisition could be opened with all the political consequences this entails. They do not because more houses increase supply and would threaten prices and create alternatives to the private rental market. In other words, it goes against the interests of their existing coalition of voters, particularly the caste of petty landlords that their policies have done so much to encourage over the last forty years.

The final strategy entails a thoroughgoing detoxification and reckoning with itself. The Cameron years tried to move with the rising social liberal consensus, but it quickly became apparent that this was but a gloss once his government deepened the neoliberal settlement further. Passing equal marriage legislation while marketising public services and pushing people on social security into destitution does not make for a progressive government of any stripe. Instead, it was just another Tory administration with slick PR. If, however, the Tories were to become more consistently socially liberal and actively dumped their attachments to scapegoating, callousness, authoritarianism and opposition to equalities, and were less capricious and more thoughtful, and abandoned persistent short-termism, in conjunction with significant about-turns on policy, a reinvented Tory Party might become a rejuvenated Tory Party. With one caveat – such a transformation is utterly fanciful and can only exist as a thought experiment. If the Tories were to model themselves on the plodding managerialism of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats but were consistently socially liberal, it would not be the Conservative Party. Indeed, such a transformation would demand a clear-out of most Tory MPs, its cadre of councillors and most of the membership. As with expecting the Tories to go against the interests of their base, refounding the Tories as a moderate, cautious centre-right party is a pipe dream.

Forecasting their futures can only be an assessment of probabilities. Social relations, after all, are not mechanisms grinding out predetermined outcomes. As we survey the political landscape the Conservatives have shaped to their advantage, it is worth tempering an apprehension of their difficulties with what British political history has taught us for two centuries. No one got rich betting against the Tories.

-- an excerpt from Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain by Phil Burton-Cartledge