Is there a new battle for the soul of the Conservative Party?
by Jack Hutchison on December 9, 2019, posted in General Election 2019 categories
The Conservative Party’s guiding philosophy, in political lore at least, is pragmatism. Call it survival instinct. The left, partial to factional in-fighting, has always envied the right for its apparent realism, and chastised it for lack of purpose.
But while the Conservatives have often claimed to be simply managers of the economy, in reality its ideologies run deep. The brutal Thatcherism of the 1980s was so electorally successful that it changed the Labour Party, giving rise to New Labour. This foreclosed the window of possibility in British politics for nearly four decades, either for a socialist alternative or a state-led Conservatism, which to many is a simple oxymoron. But it was always the case that the free marketeering of the 1980s and 90s sat uneasily with the social conservatism of many Tory voters across the south and midlands of England.
Since that time, society has liberalised to a remarkable extent. By 2012, David Cameron could claim that his party’s mission was use ‘conservative means to reach progressive ends.’ This meant economic and social liberalisation, with the Labour Party offering a more statist form of the same progressive project.
But the Conservative Party of 2019 is different. It is now the party of Leave, of former UKIP and Brexit Party voters and, significantly, many former Labour Leavers, 71% of whom now back Johnson’s Brexit deal, according to YouGov. The Conservative coalition has shifted, some might argue decisively, and it now straddles its shire heartlands as well as a potentially large number of working class constituencies in the north and midlands.
Since the 2010 modernisation, many at the top of the Conservative Party had been terrified of the party being recaptured by the Brexiteer “swivel-eyed loons”, as one Cameron ally infamously named them. But the vote to leave the European Union accelerated a process already occurring across most western capitalist democracies: the split between the educated and the non-educated, between towns and cities, and between traditional working class and middle-class voters. Those with only high school education or below are twice as likely to back the Conservatives at this election than Labour. Capturing the Leave vote became the only way for the Conservatives to see off the threat of Nigel Farage. In the European Elections of 2019 the Conservatives came fifth, below the Greens, with only 8.8% of the vote.
But the vast majority of Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs wanted a free market Brexit. For them the EU wasn’t ‘too liberal’ but too statist. They thought the innovative private sector should be freed from the constraints of EU regulation. This, very obviously, wasn’t what the vast majority of Leavers voted for. When asked, these voters cited immigration and sovereignty, NHS spending, and restoring dignity to left behind areas.
But the survival instinct of the Conservative Party could be kicking in. Tens of thousands of Leavers across the north and midlands are expected to vote Conservative ‘this time only’ to ‘get Brexit done’ and deliver on the referendum result. If the Party is to retain these voters, they’ll have to make fundamental economic shifts whilst monopolising tough approaches to crime and immigration.
And that appears to be happening. We’ve seen protectionist promises from the Conservatives on ‘buy British’ guidelines for public bodies, effectively state aid rules which would make it easier to prioritise British industry and jobs amidst national concern over globalisation. And this week the Conservatives will push hard on their promise of a points-based immigration system, described by the Oxford University Migration Observatory as “a lot more restrictive than freedom of movement… but still a relatively mainstream system” considered globally. It nevertheless has the potential to be the toughest immigration system the UK has seen for decades. Pair all this with the last Conservative Government’s promises on a national industrial strategy and the image of a cost-cutting Tory Party could be disappearing from view. The question is whether this is a fundamental shift in the party’s ideology or simply a cunning opportunism dropped soon after an election victory.
Can the Conservatives actually win their majority on Thursday? And can the uneasy peace within the Conservative Party hold if Brexit is finally delivered, both through Parliament and a trade deal with the EU in late 2020? Can Raab and Javid, cost-cutters to their cores, really raise spending to levels not seen for decades? These are not easy question to answer. The next five years, whatever happens on Thursday, will see a battle for the soul of both major parties. For the Conservatives, the major question is whether survival instinct wins out. Will adaptation to new circumstances, new voters, and new spending expectations, remould the image of the Conservatives once again?