Hate the Conservative Party by all means, abhor everything they stand for – but take a moment to look in awe at their endurance and resilience. There is no more successful political party on Earth. Although founded as a modern party in 1834, the Tories can trace their history as a political tradition back to the 17th century. In the early 1900s, many reformist left-wingers thought that the advent of mass democracy made the Parliamentary road to socialism almost inevitable. They would have been horrified if they had known that the Conservatives would end up occupying Downing Street for two-thirds of the 20th century.
But is the army of blue rosettes running out of steam? Every election victory notched up by the ‘natural party of government’ since 1955 was on a smaller share of the vote than the time before. The Tories romped to victory with 49.7% of the vote in the mid-50s – but in 1992 (the last time they won an election, we should remember), they secured the support of just 41.9% of the electorate.
Yes, they are firmly back in the saddle today – but only thanks to the duplicity of Liberal Democrats elected on an anti-Tory ticket. Indeed, the 2010 general election should not have been more favourable for the Conservatives. We were in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. The Prime Minister was competing with cholera in the unpopularity stakes. And yet the Tories won just 36% of the vote. Labour may have hemorrhaged an alarming 5 million votes since 1997, but the Conservatives had gained just a million since their landslide defeat over 13 years ago. If they couldn’t win a knockout victory in those circumstances – then when?
Traditionally, the Conservatives depended on a tradition of working-class Toryism to win. After all, it has been impossible to win an election with the votes of the well-bred alone since property qualifications were dropped from the franchise. That’s why 19th century Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had to appeal to working-class voters, who he called “angels in marble”. Another Tory PM, Lord Salisbury had once sulked about the expanding franchise, arguing that “first-rate men will not canvass mobs, and mobs will not elect first-class men.” He was shocked to discover that a third of manual workers voted Conservative. It was a tradition that continued throughout much of the 20th century.
But this tradition was fatally undermined by Thatcherism. There has always been the myth that Thatcher had a unique appeal to working-class voters because of policies like right-to-buy: but the One Nation Tories of the 1950s, who had no option but to accept the Attlee settlement, were actually far more successful in that regard. Six in ten skilled and semi-skilled workers voted against Thatcher, but their votes were split between the SDP/Liberal Alliance and the Labour Party.
What Thatcherism created was a culture of passionate anti-Toryism in huge swathes of the country that were devastated by deindustrialisation. Scotland, Wales and northern England have faced two waves of mass unemployment under the Tories – in the early 1980s and early 1990s – and they are about to be hit by a third. That’s why, while the Conservatives won over half the vote in Scotland in 1955, they amassed less than 17% at the last election. Liverpool used to be a heartland of working-class Toryism, but that seems almost absurd now and there is not a single Tory MP in the city. Do a search for ‘Conservative’ on the page listing Manchester’s 95 councillors. You’ll get one result – and he was elected as a Lib Dem.
When John Major unexpectedly won the 1992 general election, the teachers at my Stockport primary school turned up dressed in black. Anti-Tory hatred has almost become folklore in large parts of the country outside the South: it’s transmitted from generation to generation. The inability of the Tories to win in much of the North, Scotland and Wales is why, even when they had a substantial lead over Labour in the run-up to the 2010 general election, they appeared to be hitting a glass ceiling of 40%, much to the consternation of Tory commentators. It’s also why the Tories have proved unable to hoover up disillusioned Labour voters since 1997. The Coalition’s cuts offensive will firm up the anti-Tory bloc still further. By the time of the next election, the pool of potential Tory voters will have been diminished by three scorched earth economic programmes in as many decades.
Tory hopes of future electoral success would seem to rely on mass abstention by Labour’s working-class base, which is what happened at the 2010 general election. Then again, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats could see a return of two-party politics and a subsequent boost for the Tory vote. But will it be enough to reverse decades of Conservative decline?