Why we should care about the Conservative Party

By Phil Burton-Cartledge

At the time of writing, the Conservative Party have been in power for 45 of the last 76 years and were returned with an 80-strong majority at the 2019 general election. We also know when the Tories are in office what that means for our people.

In the last decade, it has meant an increase in premature deaths, a backward slide in UK life expectancy, schools and hospitals starved of cash, and minority ethnicities targeted by hostile environment policies and scapegoated for Tory failings. Meanwhile, for those who the Tories look after, the rich, life is tickety-boo. While the food bank queues grow, the share of national income taken by the UK’s wealthiest has grown to 40%, while the poorest fifth of the population make do with eight per cent of the nation’s income.

We know what the Tories stand for, what they do, and why they do it. Surely, that’s all we need to know. For socialists in the Labour Party and the left outside of it, our concerns have to be about mobilising people and encouraging them into oppositional political activity. As far as the left’s coverage of the Tories goes, it’s about the latest outrage they’re pushing through or how certain Tory politicians stand to gain thanks to shares in or some sort of relationship with businesses profiting from the privatisation of this, or the contracting out of that. This is certainly a step above the tittle tattle of who’s-shafting-who that obsesses mainstream politics commentary, but not much. The sad truth of the matter is the left do not take the Tories seriously enough.

What do I mean by this? In the 1980s the late Stuart Hall produced an analysis of Margaret Thatcher that proved extremely influential. Drawing on the work of the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci, Hall realised while she was still in opposition that there was more to Thatcherism than simply another short-term Tory government. Thatcher was more than an office-seeking politician: she had a project for remoulding British society. In the context of a crisis in the state’s political economy, her ‘authoritarian populism’ combined hard law and order positioning with anti-immigration and borderline racist rhetoric.

Then, as now, with their friends in the right-wing press, Thatcher’s Tories offered up a world of us vs them-ism, a virtuous ‘we’ against a non-white, semi-communist, semi-malingering, semi-totalitarian Other. While Thatcher promised to restore the authority of the state to smite the subversive enemies of Britain, Hall was worried the Tories might create an alliance between sections of different classes by offering carrots alongside the stick. The Thatcherite pledge came with the Thatcherite promise of a popular capitalism and spreading prosperity. This was limited to freedom to buy one’s council house, freedom from strikes and union bullies, freedom to be successful and own your own business, and was compelling for enough of the electorate to keep returning her governments despite an unenviable record of inner-city unrest and industrial tumult.

Meanwhile, facing down one section of the electorate while buying off another, Thatcher’s programme of closing state-owned industries, creating vast private monopolies by selling off state-owned assets like British Gas and British Telecom, and using North Sea oil revenues to fund tax cuts for the rich, what Thatcher was always about was the greater subordination of Britain to the blind whims of capital. In other words, like all Tories she was concerned with the enrichment and power of her class.

Hall clearly understood what Thatcher was about, and you can see echoes of her authoritarian populism in Conservative Party electoral strategy still. From David Cameron to Theresa May and Boris Johnson, all have variously tried opposing an ‘authentic’ people against elites and undeserving outsiders – in the latter case to an unwelcome degree of success. For his part, Hall argued the left needed to be in the business of forging its own alliances, encompassing Labour, elements of the far left (the old Communist Party), workplace-based movements of workers and those in the ‘new’ feminist, anti-racist, gay liberation and environmentalist movements. In other words, Hall argued the left needs to think matters through strategically via an understanding of the forces in play at any given time, an approach that fell on the deaf ears of successive Labour leaders who simply believed the route to electoral success was better marketing.

The old saying goes that you should never interrupt your opponent while they’re making a mistake. That is true, but with the Tories you have to know what they’re doing first. And why. Studying them, looking at the tactical and strategic calculations behind their rhetorical emphases, policy initiatives, how they build their electoral coalitions and what they do to overcome their significant and persistent problems must be taken seriously. Not because analysing the Conservative Party is a fun exercise, but because it is necessary from the point of view of building our own strategies and power.

How can we take advantage of divisions in the ruling class and how they play out in their party if we don’t keep an eye on them? How might the left identify sections of the electorate and those ripe for being mobilised against the Tories if we don’t pay attention to the contradictions of their support base? And how can we forestall their attempts at scapegoating if the left doesn’t identify the contours of their strategies in advance?

Unfortunately, since Hall’s contributions on authoritarian populism, work of this character has largely fallen into neglect. This is why I wrote Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain: the party of the ruling class is crying out for a class analysis and I hope this goes some way to fill that gap.

If we are to stop the Tories in the 2020s and keep them out of power for good, we must scrutinise them, learn about them, and work constantly to wrong-foot them. The left and the labour movement might not be that interested in the Conservative Party, but they haven’t won more elections and spent more time in power than any other party anywhere by being uninterested in us.

Phil Burton-Cartledge’s book Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain is published by Verso. He blogs here.

Image: Source: Boris Johnson.Author: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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