If the Conservatives want to win a majority, they must smash their idols

For the Tories, Margaret Thatcher remains beyond reproach. It’s this that will stop them from winning.

 

Perhaps the most surreal moment in Britain's Margaret Thatcher tribute jamboree came when Peter Lilley slammed the BBC for having the gumption to suggest his former employer had been a teensy bit on the divisive side. The fact that her policies continue largely unabated means "she leaves a legacy that unites us all," he argued; the broadcaster's choice of adjective "probably tells us more about the BBC than it does about her". It wasn't enough for the BBC to broadcast wall-to-wall eulogies to the most controversial political leader of modern times: now it was supposed to pretend she had never been controversial in the first place.

This moment stays with me – partly because it's so self-evidently ludicrous, but also because it seems to symbolise the Tories' huge, unspoken electoral problem. The party is in denial about quite how toxic the Thatcher legacy remains in certain parts of the country. Its supporters were, not unreasonably, outraged that anyone could throw a street party to celebrate the death of an 87-year-old woman; but they never stopped to ask how widespread such feelings were, or what impact they might have on the party’s prospects.

This refusal to take an honest look at the Thatcher legacy is, I think, a key reason why the Conservatives didn’t get the landslide they wanted in 2010. The Clause 4 moment that everyone was waiting for, the thing that would show that the party had really changed, was a proper assessment of its last government’s record: one that admitted that parts of the country had been lain waste, and showed that the new leadership had learnt from its predecessor’s mistakes. But David Cameron never did that. Until someone does, it’s hard to see how the party could ever win a majority.

There’s a risk all this sounds like lefty wish-fulfilment, of course, so let’s look at some evidence. Consider the constituencies on the Tories target list that they failed to win in 2010, and see if you can spot any patterns. These seats are scattered all over the place, and will be affected by a variety of local factors. Almost all of them, though, fall into at least one of the following three categories.

1) Suburban seats in the big secondary cities, that historically swung between Labour and Tory but stubbornly failed to do so this time (e.g. Birmingham Northfield, Bolton North East, Tynemouth);

2) Scottish seats (e.g. Stirling, Angus, Dumfries);

3) Ostensibly true blue areas that went Lib Dem at some point in the nineties, and have never gone back (e.g. Cheltenham, Somerton, Taunton Deane).

When it comes to those first two groups, you don’t have to think very hard to come up with reasons they’re less likely to go Tory than they once were. (We’ll come back to the third lot.) However much the Tories yell about more miners losing their jobs under Wilson than Thatcher, it’s still her government that gets the blame for the demise of British industry: obviously a bigger factor when you get north of Milton Keynes. In Scotland, anger about de-industrialisation is compounded by other issues, not least that it had a whole extra year of the poll tax.

The result is that there are dozens of once marginal constituencies that now look out of reach. Tynemouth had a Tory MP for nearly 50 years until 1997; in 2010, Labour retained it by nearly 11 points. Birmingham Edgbaston had never had a Labour MP until 1997, but in 2010 Gisela Stuart retained it without breaking a sweat.

Most extreme of all is the collapse of the party’s fortunes north of the border. In October 1974, an election the party lost, the Tories won 16 seats in Scotland. Two of them were in Glasgow. Today, the party has one Scottish seat. Somehow, we’ve all come to accept this as normal; even now the Tories are planning an electoral strategy based on recapturing LibDem seats in the south.

Cameron's detoxification efforts did nothing to address any of this. Where was the attempt at reconciliation with Scotland, or to reassure the north he didn’t idolise a period in which entire towns were dumped on the scrapheap? He didn’t have to apologise, exactly; but he could at least have shown that he understood his predecessor’s record remained a concern. Not a bit of it, though.

That's the long explanation for why the Thatcher legacy is still harming the Tories’ electoral chances. This is the short one: 42%. That’s the proportion of voters a 2011 survey found would never vote Tory. Won’t even think about it. As Tim Montgomerie said at the time, that leaves the party in the unenviable position of needing to win three-quarters of every available voter to get a majority.

It’s this that explains the loss of once blue seats to the yellows. The fact that places like Cheltenham or Somerton don't have Tory MPs is at first glance faintly bizarre. But one of the more noticeable electoral trends of the past 20 years has been the rise of the anyone-but-the-Tories bloc: once this group has seen that it can keep the Tories out by voting LibDem, even in places like Cheltenham, it’s likely to keep doing so. Whether this tactical voting will survive the coalition remains to be seen, but the Eastleigh by-election result suggests that it could. Does anyone really think that that the divisive nature of the Thatcher government had nothing to do with this?

The Conservative party’s only chance of winning the sort of majorities it used to get is to persuade some of that 42% to give it another chance. Doing that, though, would mean addressing their concerns; that, in turn, means admitting to the downside of the Thatcher legacy.

But David Cameron hasn’t done that: his government remains wedded to the vast majority of the Thatcherite platform. And, as we've learnt from the last month, his predecessor’s legacy is sacrosanct. Cameron could never issue a mea culpa about deindustrialisation, or mass unemployment, or the treatment of the Scots: that would mean dishonouring the memory of his party’s heroine, criticising a period that much of its membership still regards as the golden age. Vast swathes of the party, indeed, want to rerun the eighties all over again, finding another union to crush or another industry to privatise. For all I know that'll stop a few waverers from defecting to UKIP in safe seats in Sussex, but I don't imagine it'll play all that well in Birmingham Northfield.

To any Tories reading: this isn't about renouncing the Iron Lady and all her works. You aren’t going to do that, and no New Statesman> writer is ever going to persuade you otherwise. It's about persuading you to deal with the world as it is, not as you'd like it to be. It’s not enough to be outraged that there are still people who hate Margaret Thatcher. It’s not enough to think you’re right. There are voters out there who might once have voted Tory, and yet will not now. If you want to return to majority government, you need to ask yourselves why.">

In the eighties, at the height of the Thatcherite ascendancy, the joke was that the Labour left had a motto: "No compromise with the electorate". Thirty years on, the Tories risk making that same mistake: refusal to compromise won elections for them once and so, they assume, it will do so again. It won’t. That is Margaret Thatcher's legacy, too.

Tributes to Margaret Thatcher are left outside her residence in Chester Square, London. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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