If you type "Tories are" into Google, the first three suggestions are "scum", "vermin" and "Nazis". They are probably one of the most reviled political parties in modern history. In many circles just being called a "Tory" is an insult.
Yet, the Tories have governed the UK for around 56 of the 88 years since 1929, when all adults – male and female – were granted the vote, so nearly two-thirds of that time. No other political party in the era of modern liberal democracies has managed to dominate for so long. With another win on the cards on the 8th of June (albeit with a smaller majority than at first predicted) we want to get to the bottom of it: why do the Tories dominate elections? And is there any chance at all Theresa May could become their most short-lived leader ever?
I spoke to Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University and author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron, to find out what it's all about.
VICE: Hi Tim. Do you think it's fair to say that the Tories are the most successful political party ever in the UK?
Tim: Oh, I think it's fair to say they are most successful political party ever in the world. No party has had so much success for so long anywhere in a liberal democracy.
Why is this, do you think?
Generally, I think it's to do with the fact that they are an incredibly adaptable organisation with a fairly flexible ideology. Also, they are a pretty leader-influenced party, which means they can make changes quickly. They're not democratic and so they don't have to worry about internal democratic decisions from the membership to change themselves. Leaders seem to get chosen a lot quicker, and they're a lot more decisive than other parties. But why does being a top down organisation help you to win elections?
Members of the party have never had any say in policy, and they've only had the right to vote for the leader since 2001, and they still have no rights to remove a leader. So it's not only much quicker to elect the Conservative leader, it's also much quicker, more importantly, to get rid of one. They're an autocracy hampered by assassination – they pick leaders, and if they don't work they get rid of them pretty quickly, whereas Labour, as we know, can be saddled with a fairly useless leader and find it difficult to fire them. When we think about Britain and traditional Tory voters we think of the Home Counties, maybe a few rich people up in Harrogate. The rest of the country has a lot of working class, liberal people, right? Why do the Tories still dominate?
Class voting in this country has eroded over time and it's never been as strong as people think it is. The Conservative Party has always been able to appeal to large numbers of working class people on the basis of patriotism and on delivering economic growth and prosperity. They've also managed to create an aura of competence around the party, which has tended to contrast – in many voters' eyes – to what Labour has to offer.
How do you think they've done that? They demand a load of fully costed stuff from the Labour party and yet they haven't really done anything about the deficit, but people seem to just forget about it?
When they don't deliver, things can get very difficult for them. In 1992, with the ERM [Exchange Rate Mechanism], their reputation of competence was shattered, albeit temporarily, and that partly caused them the Labour landslide of 1997. It was only in 2007/8, when the economy went down the toilet because of the economic crisis, that the Conservatives regained – by default – their economic competence. But, as you say, it's certainly strong enough to withstand the facts, and I think that has to do with them being associated for a very long time with business – and there is a belief among large sectors of the electorate that business people know how to run things.
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Is their success partly down to how much more money they have?
The unions have always given a lot of money to Labour, but the Conservatives have almost always had more money to spend at elections than their main rival. They also seem more willing to spend it on advertising and to exploit the latest technology – film and TV in the early days, and Facebook.
Does the electoral system work in their favour?
Not really. The thing that has favoured the Conservative Party is that it has never really faced any threat on its right flank, whereas Labour has faced a threat from the Lib Dems, the Greens and, in Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Until the advent of UKIP the Conservatives faced no serious competition on their right. That has made a difference, I think. Do you think they cover a lot of the political spectrum then?
The Conservative Party ideology can stretch all the way from one nation centrists to populist anti-immigrant nativism, and given the preferences of the electorate in this country that's quite a large number of voters. I think the other thing to say is that since the 19th century they have had a reputation as the party of patriotism – and, since the 1960s, as the anti-immigration party. As immigration has become more important it's played in their favour. Are there still lots of people in the party with quite extreme views, and how come they generally manage to keep them quiet?
They're nowhere near so hung up on race or sexuality as they used to be. Obviously, at grassroots level, there was a lot of concern about gay marriage, for example, but even though it's very easy to stereotype the Conservatives as a bunch of blue rinse dragons and sweaty Thatcherite boys it may come as a surprise to some people that there's an awful lot of normal people with fairly centrist views, albeit centre-right, but not particularly extreme. Plus, people do keep quiet, and I think the grassroots are pretty loyal to the leader so they do tend to suppress their views in order to support the people at the top. Do you think they care that no one likes them?
You mean like Millwall: no one likes us, we don't care? Yeah.
Well, look, it's often been said it's a choice between cruel and competent versus compassionate but useless. In the end, whilst people don't necessarily want cruel, they value competence above anything else. So even if the Conservatives can at times seem less compassionate than Labour and less caring they still have this image of being competent that can win out. So even though a lot of people at the moment are posting things like "the Tories are going to kill the NHS, all Tories are scum" etc, you don't think this has any impact on them?
I don't really think they care too much about what young people think of them as long as those young people don't vote in as great a number as their mums and dads and grannies and granddads. I also think, to be honest, that there's been so much from the left about the Conservatives' desire to destroy the NHS and sell it off, and it hasn't happened. There's an element of crying wolf about it, and a lot of voters then discount it. Okay. Who do you think is the nastiest character in the Tory Party at the moment? Gove? Boris?
[Laughs] I'm not sure I can answer that. It's often said that the Conservative Party looks nasty on the outside but is actually full of people who are quite nice, whereas the Labour Party looks nice on the outside but is full of people who are actually quite nasty. Whether that's true or not I don't know. Hmm, that sounds like something Tories might say. Anyway, in terms of this election, the Tories are only five points ahead in the polls, but are they destined for another win?
It's almost impossible to imagine Labour winning this election, and I think it's very probable the Conservatives will win by a big margin. A reasonable estimate would be somewhere upwards of 60 seats, and that will mean that unless some political earthquake appears and you have a split in the Labour Party and a Macron-style centre party forms, the Conservatives will win again in 2021. It is quite reasonable that we'll have a Conservative government 'til at least 2025. Right. Eugh.
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