It’s fascinating watching what is happening to our two main political parties. Most of the media attention has been on the turmoil in the Labour Party but what is happening on the Conservative side is every bit as interesting. The FT reports that some Tories are worried about a shift away from free market ideology as Theresa May promises more interventionist policies, such as a cap on energy prices, a crackdown on companies who underfund pension schemes, investment in new council houses and the “greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history”.
This new direction is known as the Erdington Modernisation. Led by the prime minister’s adviser Nick Timothy, it sets out to target working class voters. It is designed to appeal to people in areas like Erdington, where Mr Timothy grew up:
They are the people whose lives are most affected – for better and worse – by politics. They can’t choose to send their kids to a private school when the schools around them are terrible. They can’t opt out of the NHS if they find themselves in a dirty hospital or at the end of a long waiting list. They are the ones who find themselves out of work, on reduced hours, or with never-ending pay freezes when the economy goes wrong. They find themselves unable to afford the mortgage when interest rates go up. They have to go without when their taxes rise. They are the people for whom debates about tax credits are not about spreadsheets, headlines or dividing lines but about whether mum can go back to work or not.
He has some harsh words for what he calls the snobs and libertarians in his own party:
We all know the kind. They reveal themselves through minor acts of snobbery, strange comments that betray a lack of understanding about the lives of ordinary people, or when they are councillors or Members of Parliament by the policy positions they take. I remember one MP who, as a member of the Shadow Cabinet, once said: “school reform is all very well but we must protect the great public schools, because we need to look after our own people.” Quite how many of the millions of core Tory voters he thought had attended public schools was never explained. And then there are the libertarians who make it a mark of their ideological machismo that they quote Ayn Rand, whose heroic character Howard Roark boasted in The Fountainhead: “I recognise no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom.” No wonder our opponents feel they can accuse us of callousness.
It should be simple enough to keep people like this away from the cameras, out of high office and ideally nowhere near any position of influence in the Party.
Strong stuff. It’s no wonder some people are worried.
For the last thirty years or so, the Conservative Party’s direction of travel seemed pretty clear. Since the 1980s what David Goodhart called the two liberalisms have dominated politics; the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right.
As he said:
Whoever you vote for you get the same old mix of economic liberalism and social liberalism – Margaret Thatcher tempered by Roy Jenkins.
The Conservative Party emphasised economic liberalism at the expense of its social conservatism. At the same time, the Labour Party promoted socially liberal polices while almost completely ditching socialism. As the Economist’s Bagehot column put it:
Tony Blair converted Labour to Thatcherism and David Cameron converted the Tories to Jenkinsism.
George Osborne epitomised the 21st century Tory party, a welfare-cutting fiscal conservative who publicly congratulated a colleague on her same-sex relationship. When Andrew Lloyd-Webber flew back from the US to vote against tax credits, his previous vote in the Lords having been in favour of gay marriage, Bridget Christie quipped, “he loves gays but hates the poor.” A bit harsh, perhaps, but as a caricature of the prevailing political culture it contained a grain of truth. Lord Lloyd-Webber’s voting priorities, cutting benefit spending and advancing LGBT rights, were very much in the spirit of the times.
Most of the party had accepted much of Roy Jenkins’s social liberalism long before David Cameron. This process started in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher talked tough on immigration. Camilla Schofield believes that her comments about Britain being swamped by immigrants “all but destroyed the National Front“. Frazer Nelson agrees. But despite the socially conservative rhetoric, much of what Margaret Thatcher’s government did was economically liberal; deregulation, privatisation and weakening the unions. Apart from the infamous Section 28, there wasn’t much to appease the social conservatives. While the prime minister might have thought there were too many immigrants being allowed in to the UK she didn’t do much about it. Immigration, though low by today’s standards, went on pretty much as it had during the 1970s. It often surprises people to learn that corporal punishment in state schools was abolished under Mrs Thatcher. Part of the reason for her success is that lots of people thought she was doing conservative things when most of the time she was working on liberalising the economy.
Many conservatives have deep misgivings about the Thatcher legacy. Phillip Blond, the author of Red Tory, for example:
She also traduced the wider conservative tradition and her legacy – though not her intention – has been to produce a deeply reductive economic libertarianism as the dominant form of Conservatism in Britain today. And the displacement of the wider conservative tradition by economic libertarianism is what continues to confine the Conservative Party today, making it a Liberal party rather than anything genuinely conserving or Tory.
If some conservatives weren’t happy with the liberal direction of their party something similar was also true on the left of politics. There was a disenchantment with the Labour Party among working class voters. Many felt their party was left-wing about the wrong things. It is wrong to dismiss this as bigotry. It is not sexist or homophobic to wonder why your party is campaigning for gay marriage and women on boards while your neighbours are relying on tax credits and your area turns into boarded up slum.
In a prescient article in 2004, David Goodhart warned of a rise in identity politics and anti-immigration feeling among working class voters. And so it proved. Immigration, which had barely been on the public’s radar in the 1990s, became a much more important issue in the mid-2000s.
As Paul Whiteley has pointed out, opposition to immigration isn’t just about economic concerns. Especially among older voters, it was perceived as threat to identity and culture.
For the past decade or so, then, there has been a growing constituency of voters at odds with the socially and economically liberal political culture; wanting tougher action on crime and worried about immigration but also critical of corporate elites, fearful of globalisation and believing that the railways and utilities should be renationalised. Such people could be found among Conservative and Labour supporters.
This looked like trouble for both main parties. If voters really were rejecting the two liberalisms there was surely an opportunity for a new party with a more socially conservative and economically interventionist agenda to sweep them up. Something similar, perhaps, to the European parties of the populist right.
I spotted the front cover of Prospect’s Red Tory issue on a cold day at Glasgow station in Winter 2009. I bought it to read on my train journey.
It was certainly intriguing. Was this the new strategy, I wondered. Were the Tories going to change course, dump their economic liberalism and pitch to patriotic and socially conservative working class voters? Then along came Blue Labour, with a similar theme. Was the Labour Party going go for the same voters by downplaying its social liberalism and its support for immigration? For a while there was a lot of excitement about all this but then the Red Tory moment seemed to pass.
Neither of the main parties, it seemed, was about to change its message. The Conservative Party continued on its liberal course and I, like many other people, assumed that George Osborne would become its next leader. Perhaps no-one was interested in the votes of those described by Max Wind-Cowie as “dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and downtrodden of Merseyside”. Either that or party strategists simply assumed their votes could be taken for granted.
But the question kept cropping up. These paragraphs are from two posts I wrote almost exactly five and four years ago.
The first in May 2012 on David Goodhart’s post liberalism:
It could be, then, that the more statist sides of both left and right reassert themselves. Voters across Europe might decide they want more regulation, both economic and social, not less. There is a mood across the political spectrum for clamping down on high pay, tax dodging and corporate excess but also on crime, migrants and welfare claimants.
The second in May 2013 reflecting on a New Statesman debate:
There are two reasons why a viable party of the populist right, like those in some other European countries, has not appeared in Britain. Firstly, our electoral system is less favourable to small parties. Secondly, until now, our populist right-wing parties have been thuggish, utterly incompetent and tainted with fascism. UKIP, whatever else you might think about it, is none of these things.
Many people feel that they are on the losing side of politics. Maybe this is simply frustration about the modern world but it is no less potent for that. A political party has now appeared that can exploit that howl of rage – to the extent that it can do serious damage to the major parties. Similar political movements have appeared elsewhere in Europe. The real surprise is that it has taken so long to happen here.
For a while this is pretty much what happened. First Tory and then Labour voters began to drift to UKIP. But while I was, for the most part, right when I said that UKIP wasn’t thuggish or tainted with fascism, I was wrong about its incompetence, which it has reached extraordinary levels. Despite some impressive gains, UKIP proved incapable of turning itself into proper political party.
Still, it was unlikely, I thought, that UKIP’s former Labour voters would go the economically and socially liberal Tory party. After all, these are people who want more state, not less. They want the government to do something. Most obviously about immigration but also lots of other things like crime, discipline in schools and corporate excess.
But the Brexit vote changed everything and now that seems to be exactly what is happening. Ex-Tory voters who deserted to UKIP are going back but they are taking their Ex-Labour comrades along with them. Many of the people Labour lost to UKIP during the past 10 years seem to be shifting to the Conservatives. Worse still for Labour, some of them are not even bothering with the UKIP gateway drug and are simply moving straight from Labour to Tory. All of a sudden, the Tories are the party of the working class.
Some of this is due to Labour’s problems but the Conservative Party has ruthlessly exploited the post-Brexit landscape by adopting a new guise. Almost overnight, it rediscovered the interventionist policies it had locked in the closet for 40 years. Out went Notting Hill and in came Erdington.
Has the Tory Party really gone Red? As you might expect, Phillip Blond is pleased with these developments, urging Theresa May to go the whole way with the Red Tory project and not to backslide into Thatcherism as David Cameron did. Whatever else happens, it is likely, as Mark Wallace said, that these new supporters will change the party’s priorities. The Conservative Government will be backed by people who want controls on immigration but who also want to see the railways and utilities renationalised. That is bound to change the party’s balance.
There is something else fascinating about all this though. Historians will argue long into the future about the extent to which Thatcher and Reagan brought about the deindustrialisation of the 1980s. What is certain, though, is that Britain led the way with the deregulation and free-market policies that went with it. The associated rise in inequality experienced by most developed economies started in the UK, with the other countries catching up later.
Chart by OECD
If that is one part of the Brexit story, the Conservatives also took the UK into the single market and lobbied hard for the EU’s eastward expansion. The Britain that the UKIP and Brexit voters didn’t like, the globalised de-regulated Britain, open to immigration, outsourcing, offshoring and foreign capital, is to a large extent the creation of Conservative governments. The Conservative Party is benefitting from a backlash against the world the Conservative Party created. The Tories are reaping what they sowed, albeit not in the sense in which that idiom is usually meant.
For the moment, though, none of this seems to bother the erstwhile Labour voters who are flocking to Theresa May. The Conservatives’ voter grab will almost certainly work this time. Anyone betting on anything other than a large Tory majority would be foolish. But will the Conservatives keep these voters? And if the party goes too Red, might there be a backlash from the free-market types who have been in setting the party’s direction for so long?
Finally, it seems, almost a decade after Phillip Blond first came up with the term, the Red Tory moment has arrived. Or, at least, something like it. If the Conservative Party can find the formula to keep the new voters it has attracted from Labour, the left might find itself out of power for a long time.