The announcement of Conservative aspirations to scrap housing benefit for under 25s is yet another example of the thoughtless vandalism of the government, as they degrade the nation’s social infrastructure. Jon Trickett’s recent pamphlet for Compass on the “Conservative Dilemma” is therefore a timely contribution to the debate about why the government acts as it does, and how it should be opposed.
In particular we need to recognise that the Conservative Party’s own electoral base is precarious, and their values are out of kilter with the mainstream. Therefore those in the Labour Party who seek to triangulate to appeal to swing Tory voters are underestimating Labour’s own potential to set the policy agenda, and to reassert our claim to be the ‘natural party of government’.
Tim Bale’s fascinating 2010 book The Conservative Party – from Thatcher to Cameron provided a detailed and compelling account of the recent history of the party, predicated upon the assumption that David Cameron had successfully modernised the Tories sufficiently for it to escape the cul-de-sac of unelectable extremism. In particular Cameron was credited with bringing in a new professionalism to Conservative campaigning, attuning it to opinion polling evidence and representative focus groups, rather than favouring selective evidence, or Daily Mail leaders, that supported the Tories own prejudices.
Michael Howard’s election campaign of 2005 was regarded a dismal failure, but it did prove that pitching the Conservative message only to its own core voters doomed the party to defeat. Howard also resisted calls for an early leadership election afterwards, and held a number of meetings with Tory MPs where evidence was presented to them of how much ordinary voters distrusted and disliked their party, and how much they needed to change.
Having been elected as a reform leader, Cameron benefitted from an immediate bounce. Before the 2010 election Cameron sought to reassure voters over their concerns about the Conservatives being out of touch and excessively orientated towards the interests of the rich, and uninterested in the preservation of public services. He told the Conservative Spring Forum in 2009 that “We’re the party of strong borders, law and order and low taxes – and we always will be. But today we are also the party of the NHS, the environment and of social justice too”. Around the same time he pledged that “Paying down our debt must not mean pushing down the poor”.
Yet despite these repositioning statements, the experience of the Conservatives in government has been aggressively right wing with regard to the economy, and destabilising of both the NHS and the education system; they have also shown themselves to be prisoners of extremist ideology relating to the EU, which has weakened British influence during the handling of the Euro crisis.
Jon Trickett discusses the dilemma that the Tories have in reconciling their core support with the need they have to reach out to new voters. They suffer from the Marks and Spencers paradox, that their core customers are not sufficient to sustain the company, but any innovation to reposition the brand risks alienating the customers they already have.
According to Bale, the Conservative Party represents a coalition of views comprising “Thatcherites” (broadly characterised by support for tax cuts, and hostility to environmentalism, gender reforms, Europe and immigration); “Traditionalist Tories” (economically conservative, but surprisingly progressive on a number of specific issues, including taxation and public spending, gender issues, and constitutional reform); and “Liberal Conservatives” (the least hostile to Europe and immigration, and amenable to feminism and environmentalism).
However, the situation is further complicated because the Tory Party offers very little opportunity for members to influence policy; and the party is overly steered by the “party in the media”, the columnists, editors, bloggers and journalists who shape the conservative consensus. What is more, the Conservative Party in Westminster is tilted significantly to the right; and as the locus of power within the party is centred upon parliament, then the Tories have an institutional bias towards right wing idea about Europe, immigration, the environment and social issues, whether or not those views are reciprocated by enough of the electorate to allow an election victory.
In government, the Tories seem to be reverting to civil war. It is promoting an ideologically driven policy agenda that is deeply unpopular with a majority of voters; while one faction of the party has insulated itself in a comfort blanket of moral certitude that being too right wing cannot cost them votes; while another faction – more aligned to reality – understands that they may be digging their own grave.
Jon Trickett argues that in retrospect the 1992 election marked a watershed, getting 14.1 million votes, and spread geographically to allow a Commons majority. Since then they have never achieved more than 10.6 million votes, and in 1997, 2001 and 2005 hovered around the 8 million mark. Conservative strategist and funder, Lord Ashcroft, identified that in 2010 they benefitted from about 2 million new extra voters who did not share many of the party’s core values, and a further 2 million “considerers” were minded to vote Conservative, but did not eventually do so due to concerns about their past record on public services, particularly health and education.
One particular problem for the Conservatives is that younger voters are not attracted to them; indeed in September 2010, Conservative Future, the Party’s youth wing, decided its chair and vice-chair in an election involving only 173 voters. The Tory core vote, the “True Blues” is disproportionately skewed towards older voters, with socially conservative views, often living outside the major conurbations, and who are ill-adjusted to the reality of post-imperial Britain. There is a sense of otherworldliness in their bizarre overestimation of Britain’s potential options relating to the EU.
A pressing dilemma for the party is that these core voters cannot be ignored, because they are increasingly attracted to UKIP. However, to pander to this strand of nostalgic and unrepresentative snobbery means not only that the Conservatives will struggle to put together an election winning coalition, but more damagingly that they do not articulate any credible strategy for promoting the national interest in terms of social cohesion, economic stability and maintenance of the civic infrastructure.
If the Tories are vulnerable to being perceived as only representing a sectional and increasingly anachronistic, interest group, then who can replace them? In England at least, the Lib Dems are a contender, but they suffer from lack of talent, poor funding, and they have institutional biases towards shady practice, after long decades struggling in the interstices of two party politics. Furthermore, as junior coalition partner they have damaged their own credibility.
Labour is therefore well positioned, provided it boldly establishes its own agenda. There is a potential to create an election winning coalition based upon recognising that economic insecurity and loss of public services affects not only the working class, but also middle class and professional voters; and that establishing a government based upon social solidarity, economic growth and good public services, is not a sectional interest, but is in the national interest. We need not be afraid of the “common sense” set out by Daily Mail editorials, we can establish a new common sense based upon the lived experience of millions of citizens.