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How the politics of fear may help the Tories win again

Cameron and OsborneI hate being wrong, but there’s no point running away when you do screw things up. In politics and the analysis thereof, when you make mistakes you have to ask where you went wrong and, crucially, why. And so, the Conservatives winning the general election. That was a turn up for the books. No one expected it, and – embarrassing for me – I spent the last two-and-a-half years telling anyone who’d listen that the Tories increasing their vote, let alone getting a majority, was so improbable it wasn’t worth thinking about. How could my argument have been so wrong?

When you’re trying to make predictions about social phenomena, because they’re so dynamic and fluid anything approaching a forecast has to be couched in probabilities. It is highly likely, for instance, that when I go to work tomorrow the train will pull up at the platform around 8.30am. The train driver has to work for a living, and so is very likely to clock on in the morning. It runs to a timetable that has been in force for 20 years, and the operator expects the driver to depart and arrive according to that. I can’t be totally certain the train will turn up, but a reasonable expectation of punctuality can be made based on experience.

This is why the Conservative victory was a deeply unpleasant bolt from the blue. Despite Labour’s problems, the Tories have been weakening over time. Since the first European elections in 1979, Conservative shares have been 51% (1979), 38.8% (1984), 35% (1989), 28% (1994), 36% (1999), 36% (2004), 27.7% (2009), and 23.1% (2014). The story is the same in general election contests. From a highpoint in 1955, in which Anthony Eden secured 49.7% of the vote, shares have slid ever since. In 2010 it was 36.1%, and rose to 36.9% last month. There’s also this, courtesy of ConHome:

Just under a quarter of all eligible voters supported the blue party. Better than Labour in 2001 and 2005 to be sure, but their win is fully in line with their decline over time. Small wonder they’re keen on gerrymandering constituency boundaries and allowing ex-pats to vote. In addition to that, membership has plummeted. Unlike Labour who counts only those who sign up and pay up as members, the Tories have a mixed system. The party counts those who pay a sub and those who are members of Conservative social clubs, of which there remain a surprising number knocking about.

This helps explain why, until relatively recently, the Tories always had many more members than Labour. Now? The social club numbers could well be working to conceal the real figures. Therefore knowing the trend, and observing that it is extremely rare for an incumbent government to put on votes and seats, this was why right up to 10pm on election night I was adamant that not only would the Tories lose, I was sure they’d be hard-pressed ever to win again. Probabilities, eh?

When you look at why it this reasonable supposition, an understanding of the deep social processes that have worked against the social roots of political parties does, in their case, give them a number of advantages. The story of the last 30-odd years has been the dissolution of whole chunks of labour and capital that underpinned the post-war social order (see here and here for starters).

The overall effect has been greater uncertainty and anxiety among wide layers of the general population. Whereas in the post-war order there was a certainty fixity – working class boys got working class jobs, middles class kids went to grammars, universities, and onto “good careers”, women were much more marginal to the workforce, (non-white) immigrants did the menial jobs no one wanted, and significant numbers could look forward to a job-for-life; all that has gone.

With their disappearance and, of course, a wobbly economy (not in the least bit helped by Dave’s ridiculous EU referendum), uncertainty stalks the land. Your job, it could vanish tomorrow. Your savings, they might vanish in another crash. Your town centre, changed by a babble of foreign tongues. Your green spaces, building sites for new housing. Your health, it might be jeopardised by A&E waits. On and on it goes. As people (hardworking, of course) struggle to keep their heads above water they know the rug could be torn from under them at any time.

This pool of deeply anxious people is the well from which the Tories can draw electoral success. Their politics are all about upping the uncertainty ante. Anxiety fuels anomie and makes for a more pliant, accepting, manageable populace that are unlikely to threaten the party with scrutiny, let alone challenge the interests that stand behind them. But more than that social angst is the ideal fodder for Conservative messaging. Consider the messaging the Tories consistently used throughout the election campaign. ‘Long-term economic plan‘, ‘Northern powerhouse‘, ‘securing a better future‘, ‘competence vs chaos‘, ‘strong leadership‘, it was all flim-flam but they successfully appealed to (atomised) voters’ need to believe something better, something more tangible and stable was just around the corner.

Yet as the Tories flattered the aspirations they stuck knitting needles deep into the insecurities. While the economic credibility card damaged Labour, which wasn’t helped by its own inconsistencies, what really boosted the Tories was talking up the SNP as a “threat“. Firstly, having established in the minds of large numbers of English voters – and not just those who lean to the Tories – that Scotland is carried about by hardworking families like you, they were able to successfully tie the prospect of economic armageddon, the scrapping of Trident, and the abolition of the union together in a fearful toxic mix. The perception of threat, which in actuality was utterly non-existent, struck a chord among millions of voters deeply anxious of the present and future. It was classic carrot and stick.

Whereas the constituencies of the main parties were more or less structured by and articulated through the institutions of the post-war period, their disaggregation has left a pool of voters who are disposed to vote Tory precisely because the party and its innumerable mouthpieces position it as an agency of certainty. Of course, a cursory glance at their record and their programme reveals an organisation that is anything but – another few ironic chuckles history is fond of. What that also means is another five years of continued anxiety lays the groundwork for another Conservative victory. It makes that more probable, more likely than previously thought.

This article previously appeared at All that is Solid


  1. swatantra says:

    Two little posh boys, wishing that they hadn’t won a majority! Because being in coalition kept their skeptiks in line. Now it seems Dave is going to have to go through another Put up or Shut up leadership election. There are troubles ahead to the Tories as they start to implode. A Cabinet in disarray, their backbenchers in open rebellion, its back to those glorious days of 1992. All Labour has to do is sit back and enjoy the bunfight, and in 2020, return to power and establish some stability.
    So maybe 2015 was a good election to lose.

    1. Robert says:

      Unlike labour then once they hand pick the drones to take power. I think your mixing up labour with the old Tories after Thatcher left.

  2. David Pavett says:

    We can talk about Tory lies and trickery and no doubt both existed. But we knew about that before the start. Is it not simple enough therefore to say that Labour was unconvincing? It either concurred with or adopted whole swathes of Tory policy (e.g. in education), that it was timid in the extreme (e.g. on the railways). The Tories have a clear perspective of how society should be run and there is no need for them to dissimulate – even if they tie themselves up over issues like the EU. Labour on the hand has no coherent social perspective and relies largely on a watered down version of Tory policies plus a few significant policies of social amelioration that leave all the power bases of society intact. I think that even people who are not analytical about their politics had a sense of Labour’s lack of perspective and lack of consistency.

    Had Labour been elected it would eventually have ended in tears, again. Capitalism is a resilient beast. If one does not intend to challenge it and to move beyond it to some significant extent then one must expect it to bite back. “One nation” “responsible capitalism” was never going to do that. Indeed, it didn’t even make sense.

    It is instructive to look back at Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet and to go through them one-by-one and ask just what could be expected of such people and in what kind of party promotes their like. The Tories certainly deserved to be kicked out. The problem was that that was not enough and Labour did not deserve to be elected. Just think about all those stupid last minute gimmicks …

  3. Barry Ewart says:

    Well the Tories now have no Lib Dem fig leaf to hide behind so the impending cruelty will be entirely of their own making.
    The Lib Dems were also slaughtered in the election as the minor Coalition Party always is.
    The Tories also used some dubious techniques – they hired a US Democrat social media guru so every time you criticised the Tories on-line during the election their computer generated programme gave a dozen fake rebuttals or so, thus silencing those of us who could slaughter them online on the real reasons for the financial crisis etc.
    Their bombarding of voters in marginals also seems to have drawn on marketing techniques based on people’s purchasing preferences and a number of people remarked how the Tories seemed to know everything about them.
    Yes tragically the Tory strategy of setting neighbour against neighbour re welfare (if I was an MP I think I would be reporting the Btitish Govt. for hate crimes against the poor) and setting England against Scotland seems to have worked.
    Divide and rule also has the added bonus of making the Tories friends, the rich & powerful, invisible as millionaires are distant from most people’s lives.
    And from our perpective it can be pretty difficult to make people angry about an ‘invisible’ opponent.
    Miliband’s performance on the final TV debate was a car crash as was Timid Labour’s 35% strategy.
    And Labour was too left? A freeze on energy prices – when left wing is to take the utilities into democratic public ownership!
    And of course Labour canvassers didn’t engage in political discussions on doorsteps – like robots we were instructed to find out people’s voting intentions and I hated it although I did rebel- I wanted to have genuine conversations and to politicise!
    But what we need most fundamentally is a radical vision and to argue for this simply and clearly.
    Labour has forgotten it is a political party and should be about mass political education so people empower and liberate themselves rather than our leaders paternalisticlly doing things for them, and only offering a few crumbs from the rich man and woman’s table! They don’t want to wake up the masses of people when the left does!
    The more working class and progressive middle class people who are politically aware there are then the stronger we all will be and oh we should also take on the general middle class (who are socialised to vote Tory by the Mail etc) ideologically to try to win them to the progressive middle class and a higher social plane!
    The Tories got 24% of the total electorate and 15.9m didn’t vote and 7.5m didn’t even bother to get on the register – just how disconnected millions are with the professional political elite.
    I will back Corbyn because he is anti-austerity and all the rest are more or less timid.
    The question is can Corbyn in this elite system of MPs only nominating candidates get 35?
    My hope is the 20 or so new pretty radical Labour MPs may answer the call.
    My fallback would be for the NEC to allow a Wildcard Box on the ballot paper where grassroots members can write in and vote for their choice if they don’t want any of the above.
    We need to get the Labour Party back for the members -conference making policy, CLPs choosing shortlists/MPs and with positive action to get more working class democratic socialist candidates, and a minimum fee of £5 and sliding scale fees based on income (like some trade unions) and organisations like CLPD have become increasingly important now.
    Time for Labour to be genuinely democratic socialist and to be grassroots and bottom up instead of top down. Time to become a political party again and to also take on Neo-Liberalism!

    1. Robert says:

      But he Corbyn will not get the backing of labour MP’s it should be the members and local CLP’s who pick the leader not just a group of progress drones .

      The idea is that MP’s will pick whom they want first and then we can pick what is left after they have decided. democracy for you.

      It will be the right wing Miliband look alike sound alike, is alike Burnham who will be stepping down again in 2020 as labour look for a replacement to Blair.

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