The Red Tory moment

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.

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16 Responses to The Red Tory moment

  1. Patricia Leighton says:

    Fascinating piece, though perhaps not fully convincing. I see the Tories as CONKIP, though you are right, they have attracted labour voters. The ‘soft’ side of the Tories is totally unconvincing-a bit of fluff about family friendly policies that when you look at details will be hard for millions to take advantage of. Look at the Tory funders, look at the tax avoiders, look at grossly unequal pay
    systems and the CONKIPs will not be convincing to ordinary people.And we have yet to see the real damage that BREXIT itself will cause the very people who are now CONKIPpers.

  2. bill40 says:

    All I hear from Red Tories is rhetoric and meaningless policies. Look at the ridiculous year off work to care, it’s gibberish. What the Tories promise and what we get, on workers rights etc, are two different things. I’m sure they’ll give ground on the gig economy but only because the courts will force their hand.

    Then there’s the problem of the Boaty McBoat face public, from whose ranks I shall subtract the readers of this august organ. So dumbed down is political and economic debate politicians can’t say what needs to be done. We need more debt good luck selling that. We need house prices to correct downwards but you’d get lynched for saying so. Much of the public still does not understand that we can’t have the benefits of the EU without FOM. Cos Rule Brittania init.

    I predict no change of neoliberal policy on the horizon.

  3. liminalt says:

    Very interesting. One probably ignorant question: is it not technically “neoliberal” economics rather “liberal” economics? One comment: the whole question about voters being drawn back to the Tories I think is completely muddled by the huge influence the rightwing press, notably the Daily Mail, has on the voting public – particularly that older core demographic for whom a physical newspaper is still their main source of news.

  4. I hope May embraces the Red Tory project. But I think she’ll enact a couple of policies and then revert to the Thatcherite consensus…

  5. paulsharry says:

    “Traditional working class voters, who we were born to serve, quite simply want to hear a clearer, stronger message about traditional values like patriotism, hard work and a defence of decency, law and order.” Sion Simon Labour’s West Mids Mayoral Candidate.
    http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15283834.May_pitches_for_Labour_votes_saying_Corbyn_has_abandoned__quot_proud_and_patriotic_working_class_people_quot_/

  6. The Conservatives are making massive progress in the North East where I live. A big chunk of this is Brexit – leave voters trust the Tories on Brexit not Labour. Another big chunk is cultural – people want a government who is patriotic and stands up for Britain – a vaguely defined sense of British values that they find hard to articulate. They don’t see Labour exhibiting their values. And they don’t like Corbyn. But the actual Conservative Party policies aren’t making much of an impact. No-one is talking about their actual plans.

    • ChrisA says:

      Its very hard to say whether or not a particular policy will be successful or not. And in any event policies can always be adjusted after the fact. So it is more rational therefore to vote for someone who you think thinks like yourself, you are relying on their common sense to adjust things as they go along. It takes a special kind of stupidity to vote for someone you don’t trust simply because your support their political philosophy.

      • Dipper says:

        Yes. My formula is personality, then position, then policies. Personality because the person has to be up to the task. Position because you want to think the party exists to benefit you and will put you first when considering an issue. Policy last because policies are not sticky – Cameron nicked lots of Labour ones – and because circumstances mean you need to tailor your policies all the time.

  7. jayprich says:

    The “Red Tory” small c conservatism sounds attractive, of course we’ll agree on most values (motherhood and apple pie), the social priority is too vague to act on. In terms of appeals in speech May’s party has it’s JAM concept whilst Corbyn’s mentions unionised public sector workers. Regionally we should ask why so little investment per head goes to the North East of England. My answer is that the devolved rule in Scotland and the EU routing its development grants to Wales has unbalanced the UK political scene – affecting both major parties.

  8. The first Nick Timothy quote is interesting because it paints a picture of a beleagured “respectable working class” that exhibits many of the anxieties familiar from the pre-war years. The lack of adequate public services and the struggle to pay in times of crisis, the looming threat of unemployment or under-employment, the knife-edge decisions over income support etc. In other words, his mental landscape references the 1930s rather than the 50s usually cited by political commentators trying to explain “Mayism”, let alone the late Victorian paternalism cited by The Economist. Bagehot is talking about the wrong Chamberlain.

    Some of this is confused (being simultaneously worried by tax rises and tax credits), but some of it plays to very real fears about the decline of public services and the squeeze on real incomes. As you note, there is an element of the Tory party running against its own record, though this has actually been a recurrent manoeuvre since Robert Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto. What it suggests is that many voters have divorced politics from their material interests. Contrary to the accepted wisdom that we are policy consumers motivated primarily by the pound in our pockets, we are clearly in an era when voting reflects values and emotional affiliations. It’s identity politics gone mad.

    A good example of this is immigration. If you had extended the chart backwards, you would have seen a spike in public concern in the 70s, coincident with the heyday of the NF. As you note, this declined when Thatcher whistled for the dog in 1978, but it’s worth remembering that actual levels of immigration didn’t. In fact, after declining gently over the 70s, immigration started to pick up in the 80s, a trend that then accelerated through the 90s.

    While this pick-up in concern has been retrospectively associated with the accession of East European states to the EU, that “influx” didn’t happen till the mid-00s. The increase in concern actually correlates with increased media coverage, much as the decline after 1979 correlates with reduced media coverage. I don’t say this to put the blame on the evil media but to note that public concern tends to reflect public debate (and thus political priorities) rather than personal experience.

    For this reason, I suspect the revival of Red Toryism isn’t anything more than the latest rhetorical manoeuvre intended to exculpate the Tories for their own policy folly, much as Baldwin and Chamberlain’s “National” policy from 1935 was intended to gloss over the Tories’s disastrous error in respect of the gold standard in 1925 and the inadequate response to the slump after 1929. The good news is that material interests will eventually reassert themselves, as they famously did in 1945. The less good news is that policy failure may encourage further rhetorical inflation. “Crush the saboteurs” and “Enemies of the people” might be mild in comparison to what’s coming.

  9. ChrisA says:

    I think these leftist messages by the Conservatives is because they have sensed the opportunity to wipe out Labour perhaps for good. This is not a normal election, it could lead to the same sea change that wiped out the Liberals back at the beginning of the C20. Corbyn is very unlikely to resign no matter what the scale of the defeat is. If Labour beat expectations (30%+), then the Corbynites will have the moral ground to hold Labour together. But if a worst result than even Miliband (say 22 or 24% of the vote) then most probably Labour will then split, with perhaps a new Parliamentary Labour party with more moderates and a Corbyn official Labour party. Why would the moderates stay in this scenario, of course in a split scenario they may lose their seats, but the alternative is to be shackled to a corpse. At least if they split off there is the chance that a viable new left party may be created (Return of Blair). A split Labour means the Tories will be ruling for a generation though. This is the scenario that May is playing for now. She knows there is nowhere for the blue Tories to go, so its trying to get as many Labour voters as possible.

  10. Alex says:

    This analysis misses out that in the 90s/00s period, there were an awful lot of immigration and crime acts, a lot of acts that devalued civil liberties, etc, it is misleading to say that this period was one simply of the union of two liberalisms, things definitely got worse if you were a migrant (especially refugee or asylum seeker), travellers, prisoners, youths hanging around on council estates, that sort of thing.

    • Quite. The roots of our current irrational attitude towards immigration lie in the mid-90s when the Conservative Party attempted to arrest their post-1992 decline in popularity with a turn from economic to cultural issues (the “nasty party” years), notably with the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, which was followed by the first Blair government’s 1999 Act that rearranged the same words. In the 40 years between 1950 and 1989 there were 3 immigration acts. In the 20 years between 1990 and 2009 there were 7.

      To say, as Rick does, that immigration “had barely been on the public’s radar in the 1990s” is to subscribe to the myth that a growing antipathy to migrants was a rational response by a working class to increased employment competition and stressed public services (aka “legitimate concerns”, which would eventually feed into the Brexit narrative), rather than a cynically engineered xenophobia that first sought to obscure Tory incompetence and sleaze and was then used to excuse New Labour’s timidity.

      The irony is that this cultural turn was prompted by the Tories’ cock-up over Europe, i.e. the ERM debacle. A similar cock-up (Cameron’s insouciance about the referendum) has led to the current pass. The mother of all ironies is that the ultimate beneficiary has proven to be the author of the phrase “the nasty party”, i.e. Theresa May.

  11. That the Tories will win is not in doubt. What happens next is imponderable – Moltke’s “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” presumes that there is a plan, and for the Brexit negotiations at least that plan is somewhere between deluded and improbable.
    Failure to achieve the impossible in Brexit negotiations will probably crush jobs in most remaining pockets of manufacturing (Steel / Automotive/ Airbus) while the highly skilled and the City types will move abroad. Other high value/ well paid services (Legal, Consulting, Engineering, IT) may well do likewise.
    A larger blue-collar blue vote would reinforce the “you voted for this” argument in the communities most likely to be affected in this scenario, and rags like the Express could then search out a scapegoat. Unions, immigrants and the liberal elite look to be in the cross-hairs.
    Whether this becomes a coup, or a British Macron arrives to articulate a positive vision of caring, socially liberal, economically liberal centrism and revive the oppostion, only time will tell.

  12. Said this on Twitter so just repeating here: original Red Tory thinking had a great deal of localism, of civil society, of mutualism, of cooperatives and so forth. There is little of this in the Tory manifesto (a welcome mention of employee freedom to mutualise) or the Labour manifesto (one line on wanting to increase numbers of co-operatives) – both are still fixated on either state or private sector interventions, and both tending towards the national /central, rather than the local or devolved. Given the reach, potential and scale of charities, social enterprises and community organisations to help achieve their objectives, it is a frustrating state of affairs.

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