The Conservatives are facing an existential crisis

Deprived of their social and ideological anchor, the Tories may never win again.

The great British middle class has changed. Its characteristics, outlook, values and relationships with the rest of society are very different to how they were. Take just one measure: the educational background of people in middle class occupations.  In 1945, only 17,000 people graduated from university. Last year, there were 330,000 graduates

The sociology of this change is not yet fully understood, and the political consequences even less so. But we can already see the broad political ramifications of this development. For the Conservative Party, it’s clear that the old traditional true blue values simply don’t have traction any more. The Tories have lost their social and ideological anchor. Without an anchor, the Tories are adrift.  This explains the increasingly bad-tempered debate within the Conservative high command.

Francis Maude allowed his frustration to show for an instant when he said: "The Conservative party will always suffer if it is seen as trying to turn the clock back to an imagined golden era." Who else could he have been turning his fire on but Thatcherites such as Liam Fox and Norman Tebbit? Or what about Nick Boles MP, who said: "Only by showing we really are on the side of ordinary people will we turn the Conservative party back into a truly national party"? We can deduce from this that he clearly sees his party as one that is seen as representing only the elite.

But here is a riposte from a senior Tory activist writing in the Daily Telegraph: "The party needs to have courage to stand up for its traditional values. We should be unashamed about promoting our ideals and principles. Most voters want controlled immigration. Most oppose European integration. And most share our support for freedom under the law and free markets."

Now, we can choose to interpret these contending ideas and factions as a curiosity, a part of the detritus of every day politics and a reflection of the seething personal ambitions that poison so much of Westminster life. But to do so would be a mistake and would trivialise the issues at stake. For the Conservative Party faces an existential threat. These surface tensions reflect the underlying decay of the Tories’ traditional social base. The more perceptive among them understand the need to change. Michael Ashcroft put it succinctly when he said: "The need for new supporters is a mathematical fact." But in reality they are thrashing around for new meaning in a period of rapidly shifting demographics, which they can barely understand, let alone control.

All of this will make fascinating social and political history, but for Labour it is far more important than that. In order that Labour can win again, we need to understand the crises with which the Conservatives are struggling and to adapt our strategies accordingly. In retrospect, the 1992 election marked a turning point for the Conservatives. It was the last time they were able to construct a Commons majority based on attaining a vote of 14.1 million spread geographically across the country. Since then, they have never secured more than 10.6 million votes.

Ashcroft undertook research into his own party’s failure after the 2010 general election. From this polling, two categories of Conservative voters can be identified – the true blue Tories and the 2010 cohort. The true blue Tories are the Conservative party’s core group of supporters, who are generally aligned to rightwing issues, such as crime, immigration and taxation. They are also less likely to be socially liberal or to support issues such as gay marriage. Lord Ashcroft puts this group at about 8.2 million people. The 2010 cohort had rarely or never voted for the Conservative party before 2010, and tends to be more socially liberal and protective of public services. They number about 2.5 million voters. There is also a third group, those who considered voting Conservative but thought better of it for a variety of reasons. These are the “considerers” and they number nearly 2 million.

The Conservatives desperately need to appeal to all three groups to have even a chance of gaining a majority at the next election, but the tensions surrounding these three groups are nuanced and complex. A significant section of the true blue Tory base is showing signs of deep anxiety about the "liberal" aspects of the Cameron group’s politics, to the extent that significant numbers are now looking to Ukip; indeed, 35 per cent of Conservative party members could see themselves voting Ukip in the next general election.

At the same time, the 2010 cohort has almost entirely deserted the party, alienated by the government’s approach to a number of touchstone issues. The NHS shakeup, coupled with a deeply unpopular and unfair budget, led to overall support for the Conservatives descending to the levels of the 2005 and 2001 elections.

The Conservative considerers create further tension for the party. Their values tend to be more in line with those of the 2010 cohort, but they think the environment and improving schools are much more important issues than the 2010 cohort do. Recent polling proves that both the 2010 cohort and the considerers have abandoned the Conservative party in considerable numbers.

The truth is that the Tories face problems on both flanks.

Behind the scenes, it is clear that some Tory strategists have accepted that it will be very difficult to build an electoral majority with present trends. But they have hit on a cunning plan. They will seek to gerrymander British constitutional structures, for example by changing the boundaries and voter registration, in an attempt to prevent the Labour opposition from building its own majority while seeking to filch as many parliamentary seats back from the Liberal Democrats as possible.

However, the Conservative crisis does not mean that the Labour party is guaranteed an easy ride. There is much to be done in order for Labour to become the party of government at the next election The most often quoted law of politics in the democratic age is that elections are always won in the centre. Following the defeats that began in 1979, Labour lost its self-confidence and occasionally gave the impression that it had come to believe that, in order to win, we had to camp out on a kind of politics that was wholly centrist and even centre-right. The Labour party now has the space to put an end to this triangulation and to establish its own independent identity based on our abiding values of community, justice and equality.

The Tory base is showing signs of deep anxiety about the "liberal" aspects of Cameron's project. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Trickett is the shadow minister without portfolio, Labour deputy chair and MP for Hemsworth.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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