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The death agony of British Toryism

Whether Andrew Feldman really called Tory party activists “mad, swivel-eyed loons” matters not. For the repugnant and reactionary in the increasingly depleted Tory associations, it sums up the contempt they feel Dithering Dave and his increasingly dysfunctional leadership has for the troops. The hard right hyperbole around Dave’s supposed social democratic agenda is politically illiterate, but condenses a frustration that the PM just isn’t interested in what the dying grass roots have to say about Europe and equal marriage.

I think it was Engels who said political parties more or less express the interests of classes and fractions of classes. This remains the case today, though in the British context it has meant Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems (and in Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru respectively) are coalitions of interests disciplined by the first-past-the-post electoral system’s high threshold of representation.

In the more proportional systems that exist on the continent, where the bar for entry is set much lower, the tendency to fragmentation is more pronounced. But the seismic demographic shifts ushered in under the post-war boom and accelerated by 30-odd years of the neoliberal settlement has fundamentally changed the way political parties are constituted and nourished by the constituencies they represent.

Plenty has been written on the crisis of the labour movement, how political defeat and the restructuring of the British economy dispersed “traditional” working class communities conditioned the subsequent decline of our movement is a well-worn one. Even the view that New Labour was the consequence of this diminution of power and influence is largely uncontroversial.

But despite the economic tumult and 13 years of government, the labour movement and the Labour Party remain intact. The alliance between organised labour and the progressive middle class (as represented by constellations of think tanks, socialist societies, pressure groups) is still there. Both still act as transmission belts and articulators of interests between the base and the Parliamentary Labour Party and apparat. It is by no means smooth or without conflict, but has otherwise ever been the case?

The situation with the Tories has proven rather different. Though consistently possessing a larger formal membership than its Labour opponents until quite recently, their decline has been much sharper and shows no sign of slowing. The social change neoliberalism has wrought on the British body politic has affected them just as profoundly, if not more so.

Many Tories do look back to the 1980s and Thatcher as their golden age but it was under her that party membership declined approximately by half – from a million to circa 500,000. Part of this was due to her pugnaciousness – as many Tories were alarmed at her confrontational style as those today despairing over Dave’s embrace of equal marriage. But also as her government attacked public industries and, by extension, the business dependent on them in the manufacturing supply chain, a section of capital was alienated from the natural party of business – a situation compounded by the privileged relationship cultivated by Thatcher between the party and finance.

Similarly, the break up and dispersal of traditional communities affected the Tory associations in the same way. It’s hard to believe now that Tory trade unionism was a key input into the agglomeration of interests the party represented. Wedded to monetarist dogma, Thatcherism had little problem with the growth of big business – even though they were oblivious to the impacts the market was having on its membership backbone in small and medium enterprise.

Matters didn’t improve under John Major. In fact, the eruption of civil war over Europe (a distinctly second order political issue) coincided with this comprehensive gutting of the Conservative social base. And as New Labour positioned itself as the natural party of business from Blair to the onset of the economic crisis and the Tories were consumed by another round of bloodletting, so the decline was compounded until the situation was temporarily stabilised under Dave’s leadership in 2005.

The big problem for the Tories is that while their party was stripped to the bone, unlike Labour there were no means to bring it back to health. The SME constituency remains small-c conservative in outlook, but has not come back in anywhere near approaching sufficient numbers. The properly centre right MacMillan Tories of old, the so-called “wets” didn’t either.

Nor was there a revival of collapsed Tory associations in the towns and cities. Even that milieu of young graduate careerists avoided the Tories, preferring in the main to go to Labour. Dave’s greenwashing, embrace of the gay community, and NHS love-in could sway swing voters appalled at the mounting incompetencies of Brown’s government but did not and could not arrest the shrinkage of the party. And once in power, well, we know the rest.

I really cannot see how the Tories can extricate themselves from the death spiral. The stupid empiricism of your Peter Bones, Nadine Dorrieses, Jacob Rees-Moggs and, yes, Nigel Farages has fooled a section of the Tory right into thinking that banging on about Europe is the recipe for electoral success. But it really isn’t.

For all their media-fuelled success, UKIP as an organisation has only around 25,000 members – far, far short of the vast quantities of party volunteers lost by the Tories these last 10 years alone. Also, the more the Tories try to out-UKIP UKIP, the greater their disconnect from the British public at larger, the more the party apparatus withers and the more slovenly the electoral performance. A Canadian-style recomposition is probably the only way out, and as Andrew Rawnsley notes a formal split in the Tories is starting to become a likely prospect. But with the party dipping below 130,000 members and falling, AND an utterly toxic brand synonymous with incompetence, disloyalty and outright nastiness; which bald men would want to fight over this rusty comb?

This article first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

3 Comments

  1. John reid says:

    Although im happy that labour is united and the tories are imploding, in away It doesn’t matter that the Tories are falling apart as they’ve always had a bigger membership than us, and they still haven’t won 4 times now, but ( and I don’t agree with this) the swivelled eyed loons view of some members is probably what Blair and mandelson thought of half the labour members in the late 90’s, and I reckon some of these people in the Labour Party left. Through disillusionment in the years that followed

  2. Mark Wood says:

    The comfort of old certainty has gone, it sort of feels like those in charge, the multinational corporations and the bankers have diluted our system of self governance and replaced it with a kleptocratic dystopia. The leaders of the party’s do not reflect the base.

    Think what we need is a return to certainty, a return to the politics of clear values. People need to know what they are voting for or they will not feel any need to vote.

  3. P Spence says:

    …and all that is solid melts in to air.

    Every aspect of modern life is subordinated to the the market and to the logic of exchange value. As Karl Polanyi said commodities are produced for exchange only; people and the environment are not commodities and degrade if treated as such. The Tory party is the victim of its own ideology.

    The business class will have to confect another version, accepting that Labour is now largely antagnostic to corporate power, at least in the shortish term.

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