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.

Getty.
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.