How far have the Tories destroyed their own support?

Mike Phipps reviews Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain, by Phil Burton-Cartledge, published by Verso

This book aims, in the author’s words, to explain “how the world’s most successful liberal-democratic party and the acknowledged preferred party of British business has come to a place where, it would seem, its policy prescriptions, strategic objectives and day-to-day decision making not only are harmful, but seemingly work against the interests of British capitalism and, at times, appear at odds with its own political interests.”

Given the thumping majority the party got in the 2019 general election, and more importantly its breakthrough in seats that it had not held for decades, suggesting the addition to the Tory fold of a new coalition of voters, it might seem delusional to suggest that the party is suffering a long-term decline.  But that is the central argument of this book and one I agree with. You could see the problem mainly in terms of the lack of ability and vision on the Tory benches, necessitating a polarising populist in the form of Johnson to hold the whole show together. But Phil Burton-Cartledge sees the issue as more deep-rooted:

“The sociology of the Tory Party, the character and trajectory of its support, the shifting nature of class in Britain and four decades of market-first policymaking are locking millions of people out of property and asset acquisition (above all, housing) and feeding a brewing crisis – a crisis of Conservative political reproduction.”

Part of the problem is the party’s lack of support among younger voters. People are presumed to become more conservative as they get older, but social liberalism remains a powerful force. There are material reasons why the conservatizing effects of old age are breaking down: asset-price inflation is barring younger people from buying a house and driving more of them into the private rented sector, an issue exacerbated by a dearth of publicly subsidised housing. “This cannot simply be fixed by building more and offering subsidised mortgages, because high property prices and the proliferation of renting are very much in the interests of the Tories’ coalition of older voters,” argues Burton-Cartledge.

His analysis of the Thatcher years suggests that the Conservative Party’s crisis has been some decades in the making. This was evident from its loss of support among professionals, the result of years of confrontation with doctors, lawyers, teachers and others. Historian John Charmley said it might be imagined that Thatcher had “sawn off the branch upon which the Conservative Party had always sat: the Church, the Civil Service, the universities, manufacturing industry, the media.”

 The party’s shrinking membership was another concern. By the mid-1990s, over half of its members were over the age of 66 and only 5% under 35. Burton-Cartledge takes us through the party’s grim days of Opposition, when it spent too much time, in Cameron’s words, “banging on about Europe”. But he misses the central conundrum that contributed to the Tories’ marginalisation: their polling showed, particularly in the 2001 general election, that the only issue on which voters rated them more favourably than Labour was immigration.  When they chose to make that their main election talking point, they reinforced their image as the ‘nasty party’ which had little to say on the big economic issues of the day.

Cameron’s elevation to the leadership underlines the capacity of the Tory party to reinvent itself, which should never be underestimated. But he also benefited from good timing: the exhaustion of the Blair project, the financial crash and the general uselessness of Gordon Brown as empathiser and communicator-in chief.

Liberal though Cameron’s politics might have seemed, the defining feature of his governments was economic austerity. But it was Europe that finished him off – just as his predecessors Thatcher and Major had been repeatedly pummelled by this issue. In Cameron’s case, it was a much more self-inflicted injury. He had the political authority of the 2015 general election victory and could have faced down the 12% vote for UKIP and Eurosceptic fractures in his own party.

Instead he called the 2016 referendum in typically cavalier fashion. Like the Scottish indyref two year earlier, it was a big gamble. Burton-Cartledge comments: “Like the worst sort of addict, the more meagre the reward the more willing Cameron was to bet the house.”

The poisoned chalice of negotiating Brexit was bequeathed to Cameron’s successors. Theresa May is widely regarded to have made a complete mess of this, while Johnson, his media friends tell us, acted decisively, produced an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal and won an awesome majority at the 2019 general election. The fact that the deal was based on an unworkable Northern Ireland protocol, which the government would call to be renegotiated in less than two years, attests to not just incompetence but deliberate dishonesty on the part of this charlatan.

Traditional backers of the Tory party were only too aware that both May and Johnson had put their party’s survival above the interests of much of British business. It was unthinkable for May to do a deal with a Corbyn-led Labour party and even the initiation of exploratory talks with Labour’s front bench provoked a furious reaction within Tory ranks, precipitating her downfall.

Johnson was able to win a majority, partly by extending Tory support into previously untapped demographics, on the basis of an insular nationalism. It is doubtful whether many of these voters in the so-called ‘red wall’ believe their interests lie with the party in the long run, beyond the immediate advantage of the pork-barrelling that a governing party can offer. In ideological terms, the appeal of anti-Europeanism, hostility to immigration and post-war nostalgia are time-limited.

Nor are some in the traditional Tory heartlands ready to forgive Johnson for his rotten Brexit: the Conservatives lost local government seats in the ‘blue wall’ earlier this year, and more spectacularly, the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

Whether the Tories have anything left in their tank after Johnson is an open question. The decline – ideologically, politically, organisationally – is palpable, but is it terminal? The diversionary attempts to start a culture war about identity, and moves to rig the electoral system are signs that the Tories know they face trouble ahead. Perhaps their trajectory depends to a significant degree on what the Labour Party does in the next months and years. That alone is a reason for activists to read this book.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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