Anindya Bhattacharyya looks at the weaknesses on the right of British parliamentary politics. This article first appeared in Issue 3 of rs21 magazine.
The big picture here is of a slow burning crisis in the British ruling class, which impacts on both the state as the instrument of its rule and the Conservative party as its key political institution. The chancellor George Osborne has presided over years of cuts but has failed to seriously fix the problems facing British capital. Even the right wing papers are lukewarm in their praise for him.
Consequently the British ruling class is unsure of which way to go forward. The Tory party in particular is split into warring factions pulling in different directions. And Cameron is widely despised outside of his clique. He faces ambitious and powerful rivals, including home secretary Theresa May and London mayor Boris Johnson. The latter in particular has been waging a near open campaign to replace Cameron through his associates on the London Evening Standard.
On top of that, last year’s Scottish independence referendum seriously weakened Cameron in the eyes of the ruling class. The plan was for an easy win for the No campaign that would kick the whole issue of independence into the long grass – much the same tactics that had worked previously for the issue of electoral reform. But instead the Yes campaign won 45% of the vote. This came perilously close to breaking up the country.
While the immediate fallout from the referendum has hit Labour, in retrospect Cameron’s tactics look reckless to say the least. A Conservative premier is not meant to gamble with issues like the Union. The independence referendum triggered an extraordinary panic among the rich and powerful during its final gripping weeks. The media might have forgotten about this, but ruling class has not.
What the Conservatives want is a Thatcher like figure – someone with authority and vision who can win a clear majority and demonstrate leadership. But nobody in today’s Tory party can deliver this. Moreover, any such course of action would only be possible if a particular wing of the Conservatives manages to rally a wider section of the British population behind its agenda. And this runs straight into the problem that the shallow economic recovery has not been felt by the majority of the population – not even the upper echelons of the middle class that traditionally formed the bedrock of Tory electoral support.
The long-term background trend is one of declining support for both the Conservative and Labour parties. Back in 1955 just under half the country voted Tory at the general election, with just 4% opting for third parties such as the Liberals. By 2010 the Tory figure was at 36% and others on 35%.
The situation at this year’s general election will be further complicated by the crash in Liberal Democrat support and the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens. UKIP draws the bulk of its support from Tory voters or those with right wing views. In some constituencies this will bite enough of a chunk out of the Tory vote share to push Labour or the Lib Dems into pole position.
Let’s look at the seat of Pendle in Lancashire as an example. It went Conservative in 1979 and remained in Tory hands until 1992, when Labour’s Gordon Prentice won the seat. He remained the MP until 2010 when the Tories took it with 39% of the vote as compared to Labour’s 31%. The Lib Dems scored 20% while UKIP and the BNP totalled just under 10%.
But a poll in Pendle commissioned by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft in December put the Tories on 34% and Labour on 36%. The Lib Dems had crashed to 7% and the BNP had dropped out entirely. UKIP, however, scored 19%. On these figures Labour would win the seat back, despite a clear shift to the right among Pendle voters.
So why don’t the Tories simply shift to the hard right and steal UKIP’s thunder? David Cameron has certainly made moves in this direction with his promise of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership and his endless “crackdowns” on immigration. But there are problems with this course of action too, which go to the heart of the deeper malaise confronting the Tories.
The first involves what one could tentatively call the anti-politics effect. Banging on about Europe and immigrants can tempt back UKIP defectors in the short term. But in the longer term it simply feeds the fire. No amount of “getting tough” on immigrants or foreigners will ever satisfy the racists. On the contrary, these tactics bolster their perception of a government that weak and out of touch. “Talking more about Europe and immigration undermines the Tory advantage on leadership and the economy,” as Lord Ashcroft puts it.
The second reason relates to deeper shifts in Britain’s demographics. While UKIP style policies fire up a section of the electorate – older, white, middle income, petit bourgeois – their vision repulses a much larger bloc. Cameron could only bring the Tories back into power by initially positioning themselves as socially liberal – and even then he couldn’t win an overall majority.
Two factors loom large here: race and age. It’s striking how even middle class black and Asian voters have remained broadly loyal to Labour – they see the Tories as a racist party, and consequently refuse to vote for them.
Baroness Warsi’s resignation from the cabinet earlier this year was greeted with ill-concealed delight by the Tory hard right, who did not take kindly to a Muslim woman being brought into the cabinet. But her departure was nevertheless a serious blow to the Tories’ long term prospects of appealing beyond their core vote.
This is already beginning to hit the Tories in key marginals such as Bolton West. And as time goes on the albatross of being the party for racist white folk will get steadily heavier. As the academic Rob Ford put it in a Telegraph article in October: “They can try to appeal to the older white voters who are anxious about immigration, or to the growing ethnic minority electorate which distrusts them, but they cannot credibly do both.”
The generational divide is even starker. On a whole range of issues, ranging from race to the environment, younger voters are distinctly to the left of the mainstream. A Guardian poll of first time voters in December put Labour on 41% and the Tories on just 26%. The Greens came third with 19%, while UKIP trailed at just 3%.
Of course younger voters are less likely to vote, there are fewer of them, and their views might change as they grow older. But at face value this is a problem for the Conservatives that will get worse over time if they keep pandering to the Daily Mail’s agenda. Similar problems have already kept the Republicans out of the White House for years. The changing demographics of the US mean it is much harder to win elections on a hard racist agenda. The same processes are at work in Britain too, albeit in a less stark or spectacular manner.
None of this guarantees that the Tories will be removed from office come the May general election. They face a feeble opponent in the Labour Party that has suffered from its own splits and contradictions – and lacks the political will to go for the jugular on issues that can hurt the Tories, such as the NHS. The most likely scenario is a grim race to the bottom, with both sides scapegoating immigrants and welfare recipients at every opportunity.
But whatever the election result the deep problems for British capital, and its primary representative in the shape of the Conservative Party, won’t go away. We can expect years of crises and turmoil to come – the question is whether the working class here can exploit that. And that ultimately lies in our hands, not those of any political party.