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 lord president of the council, shadow cabinet office minister and MP for Hemsworth.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder