Image by Cei Willis, corner graphic by Sam Taylor
“At the moment, the Tory Party is a little bit like the bankrupt, defunct music store HMV,” reckons Conservative MP and sometime libertarian rogue Douglas Carswell. “For most of the 20th century HMV was ubiquitous on the British high street. But then it went bust. Because it didn’t adapt.” It lost its consumer base and its marketshare – and eventually, says Carswell, “its mojo”.
I don’t know if the Tories ever had “mojo” exactly. They had power, they had votes, they had Ronald Reagan’s private number, they had Crass on their back, but mojo? Probs not. Still though, they were very popular and right now, things don’t look great for the dominant party of British politics. The last two Observer polls put Labour at a seven-point lead over the Conservatives. The Tories are losing ground that they didn't really have in the north. Far more Brits believe that Ed Miliband, rather than the PM, “understands people like me” (36 percent versus 25 percent). Meanwhile, UKIP is siphoning support from the right (the party has been getting 17 percent in some polls) – and could very well win the day in May’s European Parliament elections. How could the Conservative Party swing it back for 2014?
“We need,” says Carswell, continuing on the music distribution metaphor “to be like Spotify.” By which I don’t think he’s suggesting the party starts a multi-tiered membership system that bombards its lowest paying members with adverts, rather that the Tory Party will only have a better 2014 if its modernising faction wins out.
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Talking to Conservative MPs like Carswell, John Redwood and David Davies, as well as commentators and party critics, the discussions inevitably turn inwards: to the great internecine struggle that threatens to tear the Tories asunder, between party modernisers and neo-Thatcherites. Between Cameroons and their “True Conservative” foes – the ones who would have jumped ship for UKIP long ago if it wouldn’t get them chided at the Boodle Club’s annual dinner.
After David Cameron became Conservative Party leader in 2005, he promised a warmer and fuzzier Conservatism. Vowing not to be the “prisoner of an ideological past”, he declared himself a “relatively liberal Conservative”.
Over the next few years, many an earnest conference paper was devoted to the subject of internal reform, or “Tory Modernisation 2.0”. First, modernisers pledged to expand their core base. Only 16 percent of ethnic minority voters voted Tory in the 2010 election. (At four percent, support was lowest among Black voters.) And the Party gained just one third of northern shires – and a single seat in Scotland. Modernisers knew that that they had to adapt the message to grow the heartland.
In November, the party even issued “community engagement guides” to winning over ethnic votes, which were full of helpful tidbits like this:
“Red is a lucky colour in Chinese culture and should be worn if attending a Chinese New Year event.”
“Please be aware that some Muslim women may not wish to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.”
Subsequently, the party began to soften up. Cameron hushed up some of the loudest-mouthed Euro-sceptics – and urged Tory comrades not to abandon issues like welfare and social mobility to their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. And, as a result, in 2013 his government accomplished some good stuff in the name of conservatism.
In 2013, Cameron legalised same-sex marriage (the greatness of which was somewhat undone by the PM’s shrugged apology to party members, afterwards, for upsetting homophobes). With an eye to the potent power of behavioural economics, he announced that his Behavioural Insights Team (or, “Nudge Unit”, the brainchild of 2010 that has reportedly saved Britain hundreds of millions of pounds – and is now the envy of the Obama administration) would be spun-out and expanded, possibly to enormous effect. The amount that Brits can earn before paying income tax has been increased, as a means of helping lower-wage earners. Tens of millions have been allocated for Start-Up Loans and New Enterprise Allowances.
But, a few examples aside, since winning the election, the picture has been one of a broad ideological retreat for Cameron – a trend that continued in full force throughout 2013. In 2011, he declared that state multiculturalism had failed – and started harping on about immigration caps. He ramped up his EU hating; he issued chest-thumping speeches about Britain’s looming “decline”; he used precious political ammo to wage war on the European Court of Human Rights. In October, Cameron accused unemployed under-25s of choosing to be on the dole. In July, the Tories even managed to piss off people who'd usually be goading them ever further to the right, by sending Home Office vans, emblazoned with warnings that illegal immigrants must “GO HOME”, to areas with large immigrant populations. The Telegraph dubbed it “cynical and distasteful” – even professional immigrant-hater Nigel Farage called it “nasty”.
More recently, the Tories’ silly war on internet porn has seen them lose the moral high ground on freedom of information, simultaneously letting the Chinese government off the hook by providing them with a Western example of severe internet control – at least according to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Some senior Conservatives may think of their traditionally more right-wing grassroots members as “swivel-eyed loons”, but the Tories spent most of 2013 living up to these cliches.
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Unsurprisingly, more moderate Conservatives are getting angry. On December 27th, Bright Blue, a pressure group that includes many Tory Ministers and MPs on its advisory board, accused the PM of “pandering to prejudice, uncertainty and anger” and promoting “quite negative and uninspiring” conservative politics.
Is the existence of UKIP to blame? According to some recent forecasts, the virulently Euro-sceptic party and its leader Nigel Farage might clean up big in this year’s European Parliament elections, while a strong showing at the General Election could end up robbing the Conservatives of up to 100 seats. That has some Tories begging for a rightward pivot, in order to siphon off UKIP support. “Whenever the Conservative Party is under pressure, it moves to the right,” affirms Bobby Friedman, author of Democracy Ltd: How Money and Donations Corrupted British Politics.
But it’s not as if a lurch to the right would be the purely tactical reaction of a party fighting for electoral survival – “True Conservatives” are hardly reluctant to push things in that direction, anyway. “I’m obviously on the side of traditional Conservative policies,” MP David Davies told me, shortly after lambasting his party for its treatment of “the gay marriage issue… I think it was rather pointless and has alienated our supporters.” Asked how he would improve the Tory Party in 2014, Davies urged a focus on the economy and a tough stance on immigration. He also wants to see the Human Rights Act “withdrawn or amended… We have serial rapists who can’t be deported back to their countries because there are wars going on. We had one from Sierra Leone. I don’t give a shit whether they send him back to a warzone… Put him on a plane!"
“The big thing is to get much firmer governing from the parliament, not Brussels,” furthered John Redwood MP, who advises that Cameron “take an issue like borders or energy. And put to Brussels what we want to do and intend to do and then do it.”
In June, ultra-conservative backbenchers had the chutzpah to issue an “Alternative Queen’s Speech” that called, among other things, for the Department of Energy and Climate Change to be abolished, for the August Bank Holiday to be renamed Margaret Thatcher Day, for the BBC to be privatised, for National Service to be reintroduced – and, for good measure, for burkas to be banned in Britain. But the veer-right plan might backfire. “Does anybody really think that a rightward lurch will attract those voters who got cold feet about voting Tory in 2010?” asks political consultant and Tory strategist David Skelton in a recent blog post. “Were there any people who were tempted to vote Tory in 2010 who didn’t because they weren’t seen as right wing enough?” Brits are more worried about energy bills and fuel costs – and maybe the fact that, in 2013, Britain lost its Triple-A credit rating for the first time since the 1970s – than about immigration quotas and religious extremists.
According to a study by the Conservative Lord Ashcroft, of the 34 percent of people who voted Conservative in 2010 and have since defected, “nearly as many… have gone to the Liberal Democrats as have gone to UKIP”. And so “there are more votes to be lost by adopting a more overtly right-wing agenda than there are to be gained”. There may be a lot of EU-haters out there but maybe the Tories should stop pandering to them.
“[The Tory] strategy for dealing with Nigel Farage has been almost completely counter-productive,” insists Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London. ‘When they moved to up the ante on immigration in Europe, all it did was legitimise the critique that Nigel Farage was making. Rather than shooting his fox, they fed it.”
In 2013, Tories let the jeremiads overtake them – with the effect that screeching right-wing headlines, feeding off marginal Conservative backbenchers, set the tone for the debate. And so, in a roundabout way, the Tory Party could turn itself around in 2014 if it takes lessons from the (relatively) bright-eyed David Cameron of years past. In 2005 he passed his first test in Parliament, mocking Tony Blair by saying, “He was the future once.” He should have been more careful not to become the butt of his own joke.
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