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The slow death of the Tory party

Boris pantsAfter months of tedious Labour infighting, the moment for its long hoped-for eclipse by Tory party divisions has finally arrived. So-called blue-on-blue action is doing a good job of exposing Tory idiocy on all sides of the referendum debate. Ministers – particularly those on the leave side – are wonderfully showing up their stupidity. And last but not least the bumbling, amiable mask Boris Johnson has hidden behind for too long has slipped and the face of an unprincipled chancer is daily in the press and politics programmes.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe this will be enough to rip the Tory party apart, even if matters get pretty fierce and it falls to playground name-calling. Thankfully, there are other shenanigans afoot that might put the long-term health of the party Conservatives in jeopardy.

Last week, the Telegraph commented on “secret plans” by Dave to reorganise the party. Under these measures, he was hoping to wind up nine out of ten local Tory associations and centralise the membership in sub-regional blocks. Association chairs will have less local clout, giving up powers to CCHQ, and campaigning was to be concentrated in a staff of full-timers appointed by and beholden to the centre. The reasons why are pretty obvious. For one, Dave knows some of the parliamentary party are going along with Leave because of pressure from the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” in the constituency associations. And, as we know, that’s where real political sovereignty lies in the Westminster system. Secondly, mindful of what happened to the Labour Party, it’s plausible to them for the party elite to try and prevent the same thing from occurring – not that it will ever see a Corbyn-style surge. Specifically, and more immediately, there is the thwarting of Johnson’s ambitions and shoring up the fort for Osborne.

Alas, there’s been a partial row back on the plans. Associations under 200 members will be merged with their neighbour(s) and it will go ahead where there is a desire for it to happen. In reality, a large number of associations operate in this way already, particularly in urban areas where some are down to single digits. It’s also worth noting here a chunk of the membership is entirely fictitious. If you’re a member of your local association boozer, and there are a surprising few knocking about, you’re classified as a party member too. Yet despite the step back it still represents a power grab by central office. Marginalising them and directing activism from the centre has the added benefit – from their point of view – of making the full-time apparatus more influential and important to those wanting to make their way up the greasy pole.

I welcome these reforms and hope the Tory party board don’t water them down further. The problem with the Tories is they are locked in a death spiral. The membership keeps falling and precious few activists are coming through. This can be offset by money, by gerrymanders, by friendly media, and by engineering situations more favourable to their politics. But they cannot fight shy of this forever. Dave must hope that a more disciplined outfit will prove attractive to Blair-esque small business, middle class, and professional people who’d find the unreconstructed rightwingery of the associations a massive turn off. Sadly for him, it’s groundless.

As we know from the experience of the Labour Party under Blair and Brown, one driver of the diminishing membership was the ever more remote relationship between leading MPs and the members. Unless you were doggedly Labour, and/or had the political understanding that participating in the party and working for its electoral victory is always preferable to the alternative, there was very little to incentivise paying over the subs, attending the meetings, and doing party work. Whatever you might think of Jeremy Corbyn, his election has reversed that trend and all the crude insults and calls for deselection for truculent MPs are expressions of a support reasserting itself after feeling neglected. Dave’s proposals promise to send his party in the other direction. With the influence of associations curbed, and with it the patronage senior lay committees can dole out, unless one is either a careerist or a super hardcore Tory why would you join a party that takes your money and gives precious little back? To head Johnson off at the pass, the Tories’ famous short-termism and decadence sees Dave forward a plan that can hasten their decline. Good.

There is, however, a cloud to this silver lining. The Tory party isn’t some free floating signifier without a referent. It is the collective expression of a section of British business and their allies and exists to pursue their interests while pretending to govern for everyone. It also has a wider constituency of millions who will always passively support them come election time. The problem is if the Tories die, those interests and those votes will find expression in some way. It could be through a Blair mk II Labour Party (stranger things have happened), a rejuvenated but rightward-facing Liberal Democrats, or via a recomposition of the right into something even less pleasant than the Tories and its ugly UKIP offspring. Whatever happens, when defeat eventually comes for the Conservatives we need to have a movement and a Labour Party strong and astute enough to ensure that however long their current period of government goes on for, it will be their last.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image credit: Boris pants £15 at Twisted Twee



  1. gerry says:

    Interesting article but as long as the Tory party has an electoral headlock on the South, East and Midlands of England (outside London) then rumours of its slow death are greatly exaggerated!

    50% of those who voted in 2015 voted Tory or UKIP, and we all know that the older the voter the more Tory they are: demographics are on their side.

    And of course we all know that only Tony Blair managed to break Tory hegemony in England’s south, East and Midlands: no one else has come close to doing that in the 90 or so years since universal suffrage. So interesting thoughts Phil – but not much more than that.

  2. David Ellis says:

    The slow death of the Tory Party will be as nothing compared to the very rapid death of the Labour Party if Corbyn does not reverse his decision to suddenly embrace the EU in the name of unity with the New Labour MPs and establish a vigorous campaign for a Leave vote in Cameron’s referendum. If Labour votes for austerity and neo-liberalism and props up Cameron the pasokification of the party will recommence Corbyn or no Corbyn and Labour will be looking at a 2020 wipe out similar to the one it just experienced in Scotland. But not to worry. Even if Bremain wins and Labour is replaced as the opposition to the establishment by the far right encompassing the Tory Right, Kippers and assorted fascists the British ruling class will still be split down the middle and the possibility of building a new principled leadership that is not self-serving and dependent on the survival of capitalism and imperialism for its bureaucratic privileges in the labour movement will open up before us. The same goes for a successful Brexit campaign and of course the more we campaign for it the easier it will be to rebuild in the wake of the Labour Party’s demise and to take advantage of the ruling class split. At the moment the Tories are getting a free pass and are having a civil war safe in the knowledge that there will be few consequences for it externally at least from the left.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Prediction is always a dodgy game in politics – as the events of recent years and of recent decades should have taught us.

    The Tories clearly have a problem. This once great party (in terms of its membership) is down from millions to 100,000 or less. It is ageing and draws from a tiny section of the population. But there are various scenarios as to how it could resolve its problems.

    For example many immigrant groups are natural conservatives but are repelled by the traditional image of the Tories as anti-foreigner and racist. That could change, in fact it is changing. We only have to look at the changing political allegiances of descendants of immigrants (e.g. Jews, Cypriots, Sikhs) to see that the Tories have a large potential new base for support if they can overcome some traditional attitudes which do not serve their interests, despite long-held prejudices.

    So, I wouldn’t start dancing on the grave or the Tory party just yet.

    The suggestion (David Ellis) that Labour will collapse if it supports British membership of the EU seems wrong-headed to me. This is an issue on which the majority of members and the majority of the PLP agree and it is Corbyn who is out of line. What price democracy?

    And that is without even going into the likely consequences of an EU exit (shift of financial services to continental Europe, Scottish independence and much else besides).

    Rather than debating Tory decline the Labour left should be doing what it is notably failing to do, despite the challenge from the right (Policy Network, Progress etc) and that is to develop policies on key issue to a form where they have majority support within the Party and are ready to be taken to the public with well-designed materials to appeal to the various levels of political engagement of the general public.

  4. James Martin says:

    There’s a few dots here that haven’t been joined up. The Tories now lack any type of viable election organisation in large parts of the country. The next generation in the youth wing have been exposed (again) for being a bunch of nasty sexist bullies, their revival in Scotland has I believe been overstated and they are looking to lose London badly in the mayor contest.

    Now of course US politics has shown you don’t need a large level of active members, both the Republicans and Democrats (at least those around Clinton) relay on large donations from the rich and corporations and election campaigns run via advertising. To the Tories you can see how this is an attractive direction to travel in, and this links with the attempted attacks on Labour funding from the unions that if successful would they would hope both weaken Labour and make it more likely that the Party would support state funding.

  5. Bazza says:

    Yes the Tories only got 25% of all those eligible to vote and I think 15m did not vote for anyone including all the pro Neo-Liberal parties. So we need to appeal to working class/working people, the progressive middle class, and to try to politicise the general middle class who are socialised to vote Tory (reinforced by the Mail etc. and each other) and social status is still important to this group, but by joining the progressive middle class it could be argued that they reach a higher social plane. Oh and try to appeal to those who have given up voting.
    Oh and Jeremy needs to rebuild bridges with Hindus – wooed by Cameron and probably by the election result in India.
    Hopefully left wing democratic socialist ideas may inspire.

  6. John P Reid says:

    John Mjors all things to all people, yet aeurophile, Maastrict treaty support in the 90’s caused a so,it, the fact that those in the Tory party who are Pro EU, have agreed to stay in, for fear of not wanting to lose Scotland, argued for reforms, or like the EU keeps done wages,even if it meant a Ultra Thatcherite party couldn’t take away, Maternity leave/ sickness pay,

    But this is no worry to the Tories they’re 15% _ahead in the polls,with the boundaries already starting to go in their favour, the boundary changes will make it even harder for labour,

    The Labour Parties supporters are 70% pro Eu, but we’re on 24% in the polls!we need 16% more!that support needs to come from ex labour voters who’ve gone Ukip, or , will go Tory because they like Boris Johnson, and even if 75% of the support labour needs comes from Eu Sceptics,it would mean, to win labour would need more than half its supporters to be EU Sceptics

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      I cannot imagine myself ever voting for the conservatives, that’s simply not going to happen, I remember Thatcher far too clearly and without any respect or affection, and am old enough to understand the damage that they have and that they continue to do to the lives, livings and security of the vast majority of people in the UK who are not well off.

      the fact alone that my wife is disabled would be enough to ensure that.

      But I tend to think that the UK leaving the EU is the perhaps best of a number of almost equally dire options now open to us, so I’ll be voting out.

      I like many other people paid my £3 and voted for JC expecting this to be a precursor my joining the labor party at the earliest opportunity as a full member, but have already grown rutterly cynical about how little difference his election has really made to anything round here, including policy and the PLP seem simply to have refused to admit his legitimacy or his mandate from the electorate at all and seems to be simply waiting or him to go away and stop bothering them and I also remain utterly sicked by the arrogance and complete lack of respect that they, (the PLP,) demonstrated in refusing to support his principled opposition to more bloodletting of old men, women, mothers and children civilians and noncombatants in Syria.

      I’m quite happy to continue to vote for UKIP, particularly as they have no chance of being elected round here and if the Labor party choose to regard that as them being given the finger then they’ve probably got it right.

      Nor am I alone in feeling this.

  7. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    A clever enough, in it’s way, article that seem to be arguing that the only remaining hope for any kind of success the now morally defunct, intellectuality vacuous and ever more politically decrepit British Labor party is that the Tory’s will now somehow accommodate them and spontaneously self destruct of their own accord.

    But does that really seem likely ?

    In fact Blair himself has said and I agree with him on this, that Tory’s won the last election only by default, (and not because the Tories beat them or won the arguments in meaningful sense.)

    So whilst Ed Milliband was; speaking to all us, “poor people,” from the servant’s quarters of his multi million pound London mansion, about how awful it must be for us to actually need to work for a living and how glad he is that he’s never had to, (many people myself included, regard Miliband and also most of the equally well heeled, equally out of touch and equally unrepresentative labor front bench as being a bunch of far right Tories anyway for whom socialism is complete and utter anathema.) thousands of us were listening with increasing irritation and contempt to the offensive and nakedly Tory rants of low life like, Burnham, Reeves, Umana, Kendell, Balls, Cooper, etc….

    Exactly the same people in fact who were so annoyed when those of us for whom socialism is anything but anathema simply declined to vote for them, at best, the Tories by other means; those of us for whom in fact socialism still represents the best and perhaps only remaining hope for anyone in the UK who is not a multi millionaire property speculator, (let alone anyone who is sick, disabled, unemployed or simply poor,) for any kind of a fair, decent and equal life here in the future.

    In some respects the Tories and Labor are in a similar predicament, of falling membership and support.

    The selection of Jim McMahon in Oldham, (by the usual suspects, our secretive and unaccountable CLP,) to replace the late Micheal Meacher as our MP, despite his unconvincing policies and his track record as the leader of the council, the fact that he isn’t from Oldham, (but then neither was Meacher, of itself not automatically a shortcoming) his apparent support for another right wing Tory Liz Kendell, and who is another sticky fingered apolitical careerist, McMahon is actually a useful snapshot of the real nature of the problem, not just in Oldham, (and I still find worrying the fact that no one that I know seems to have a good word to say about him on anything.).

    In the end he was elected to the safest of safe seats with a slightly increased majority despite him being a Tory, (or worse,) by only around 20% of the electorate of whom only 40% even bothered to vote, so he can’t say that he has any real mandate or real legitimacy, since around 80% of the voters here felt as I do that he wasn’t worth voting for despite us electing JC as labor leader for all the difference that’s made.

    So I now find myself in the rather dubious position of having voted for a man I believed might be a socialist, (JC,) and that this has had the completely undesirable consequence of getting elected as my MP, a young man who in my view is frankly anything but a socialist, who to my mind indeed would be far better suited to the conservative party and to the conservative benches.

    its not a pretty sight.’

    1. John P Reid says:

      A fir blog, but Cooper a Tory, and Burnham like Cibyn was al rings to all people, th few things I agree with him in no ahS2 no trident, but still because labours policy is to stay in the EU, he has canvassed for no trident, he can’t he canvass against the Eu

      Regarding McMahon and Kendall. She took a lot of abuse but Jc praised her for a thoughtful argument, and maybe the Tories are copying her on develution, rather than her copying them

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