Dead Men Left

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Decline and fall of the Tory Party

Anthony King of Essex University noted in Saturday's Telegraph that:

The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher and during John Major's early years famously lost more than a dozen seats in by-elections yet won three general elections in a row. However, no opposition party has ever formed a government without at least holding its own in by-elections during the mid term. History and practical wisdom suggest that an opposition party that cannot win votes and seats when nothing is at stake and when voters feel free to voice their objections to an incumbent government is unlikely to fare substantially better at a general election.
By-election votes are cheap. General election votes are much more expensive.
Against that background, the real losers in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South were not Tony Blair and the Labour Party but Michael Howard and the Conservatives.

Placed in a long-term perspective, the Conservative's share of the national vote has declined in every single general election since 1955, bar two: the insignificant blip in 2001, and 1979, when a peculiar combination of long- and short-run factors swung sufficient Labour voters over to the Tories that they could win the election. This 8% direct swing was heralded at the time as the birth of "authoritarian populism", the end of the "forward march" of labour, and so on;  in practice, most of those new Conservative voters gradually leaked back into Labour or third-party support. In as much as New Labour has accepted the myth of the "Winter of Discontent", the decline of collectivist values - and, indeed, the decline of the working class, as opposed to its deep recomposition - that '79 vote has has a huge impact on the British Left.
For the Tories, however, its impact on their support seems more fleeting: the secular decline in national support continued through 1983, 1987 and 1992 general elections, where a divided opposition (most egregiously, perhaps, in 1987) allowed further election victories. More contingent factors - the Falklands war, the Lawson boom - doubtless assisted, but without doubt the Alliance/Labour divide weakened and disrupted an effective left electoral opposition. Even so, the years of the Thatcher government did little to sustain their base of support. Former council tenants exercising their "right-to-buy" became, over time, no more significantly likely to vote Conservative than those still in council housing; the benefits of the Lawson boom disappeared into the Major slump; and, whilst the massive restructuring and "deindustrialisation" of the British economy continued, the new, service-sector working class seems ill-disposed towards the Tories. All these factors help explain Blair's initial election victory, whilst the Conservative Party - burnt out, perhaps, by Thatcher's zeal - remains adrift, unable to convince the electorate it could better manage a neoliberal polity it helped assemble.
King continues:

At the general election, the Conservatives came second in four of the five seats. In the subsequent by-elections, they have won nothing and come second only once. They have contrived to finish fourth once and third three times.
Moreover, their share of the vote, far from increasing, has fallen on all five occasions. Until recently many Conservatives believed the party was on a roll.
They were right. It is. It is rolling gently backwards.
The Tory share of the vote in Birmingham Hodge Hill has fallen from a respectable 37 per cent in 1987 to less than half of that, 17.3 per cent, now.
In Leicester South, the fall in Tory support has been equally precipitous: from more than 40 per cent a generation ago to just under 20 per cent at the by-election.
The conclusion is as simple as it is inescapable.
The present Labour Government has lost the respect of a majority of voters but the Tory opposition party has not even begun to regain it. Today's Conservatives lack political heavy-hitters and the party, as a result, lacks the natural authority that it once possessed.
In an era ideologically dominated by New Labour, the Conservatives have failed, in addition, to find a distinctive voice.

King - mistakenly, I believe - attributes the Tories' woes to the absence of "heavy-hitters". That, in itself, is significant, but seems far too immediate and flimsy an explanation for the deep malaise affecting the Conservatives. Whilst much is written of the "decline" of the "traditional" working class, the end of post-war social-democratic consensus, and so on, it seems possible that alongside the Conservative's secular decline - both in proportion of votes, and in number of members (from over one million in the '50s, to less than 300,000 now) - the dramatic transformations of British society over the last twenty years have rendered it unable to function as a coherent political organisation. The musty whiff of "little old ladies cycling to communion, warm beer, and cricket on the green" still clings to  it; Major's description of Britain, unconvincing as he spoke them in the mid-1990s in an attempt to elucidate the Tories' underlying philosophy, seem almost parodic now. More speculatively, without a "traditional" working class, centred on heavy industry and often deeply parochial, and without the peculiar habits of status and deference it helped sustain throughout society, it is the Tories, not Labour, who truly flounder.