David Cameron delivers a speech on welfare in Hove, East Sussex, on February 17, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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It may take defeat to an “unelectable” Labour Party to force the Tories to modernise

The shock of losing to Miliband could awake the Conservatives from their dogmatic slumber.

The Conservatives are struggling to win this election because they failed to win the last one. Most governments endure by managing decline, rather than gaining support. Both John Major and Barack Obama, two leaders whose electoral success Tory strategists study obsessively, retained power with reduced majorities. Because of David Cameron’s failure to win outright in 2010, he will almost certainly fail to do so on 7 May. Indeed, the Tories face a fight to remain the single largest party: Labour needs to make net gains of just 24 seats to supplant them. There is increasing confidence among Ed Miliband’s inner circle that it will.

To win again, the Tories must understand why they fell short in 2010. Their problem is that many still do not. It was a dearth, not a surfeit, of modernisation that denied them outright victory. This is not an ideological assertion but a matter of empirical record. The Conservative pollster Lord Ashcroft’s audit of that election, Minority Verdict, found that too few voters trusted them to manage public services and to govern in the interests of all. In the months that followed, the myth developed that the Tories’ failure derived from the insufficient toughness of their policies on immigration, welfare and Europe. It was one that the party’s becalmed modernisers struggled to contest. After this, the Tories’ rightwards trajectory became inevitable. The “backfire effect”, the term coined by the US political scientist Brendan Nyhan to describe how individuals’ convictions grow stronger in the face of contradictory evidence, took hold.

After failing to decontaminate their brand in opposition, the Tories poisoned it in office. The abolition of the 50p tax rate, the reorganisation of the NHS and the bedroom tax were self-inflicted wounds that have yet to heal. More recent missteps have displayed a remarkable lack of self-awareness for a party that has had 18 years to reflect on its inability to win a majority. For example, this month’s announcement of further welfare cuts was masochistically scheduled to follow an opulent black-and-white ball, a sequence of events more suited to an Evelyn Waugh satire than the campaign of a modern political party.

It is in this context that Tim Montgom­erie, the founder of ConservativeHome, and Stephan Shakespeare, the chief executive of YouGov, have launched “the Good Right”, a new project to regenerate conservatism. They prescribe 12 initial policies for a “One-Nation Conservative Party”, including higher taxes on expensive properties and luxury goods, increased housebuilding, above-inflation rises in the minimum wage, greater infrastructure investment and limits on political donations. It is a programme of precisely the kind that the Tories need to embrace if they are to attract new supporters, most notably the blue-collar voters who have gravitated towards Ukip and who enabled their past majorities. Through a combination of ignorance and arrogance, too many Conservatives have convinced themselves that the economically insecure, interventionist-minded groups attracted to the “people’s army” will be appeased by the promise of an EU referendum, restrictions on migrant benefits and a relentless focus on austerity.

The Good Right has emerged too late in the political cycle to have much influence on the Conservative manifesto currently being assembled by Jo Johnson, Boris’s younger brother and the head of the No 10 policy unit. If its vision is ever adopted, it will more likely follow defeat than victory for the Tories. Referring to Labour’s poll deficit on leadership and economic management, George Osborne has declared that “water would have to start flowing uphill” for the opposition to win. Should the supposedly “unelectable” Miliband nevertheless enter Downing Street, the Conservatives may finally be forced to confront the question of why they are so disliked.

Alternatively, should they scrape over the line, many Tories will greet their victory as a vindication of their ideological prejudices. They will draw comfort from the rejection of Labour’s “socialist” programme, disregarding the individual popularity of many of Miliband’s policies. By again making too little effort to dispel their reputation as the party of the privileged, they will expose themselves to attack from a revived opposition and an economically populist Ukip.

The Conservatives’ historic strength has been their willingness to change according to circumstance. After their landslide defeat to Labour in 1945, they embraced the NHS, the mixed economy and the welfare state and were rewarded with 13 years in office from 1951. Confronted by the exhaustion of the postwar consensus at the end of the 1970s, they produced the transformative philosophy of Thatcherism.

It was in the 1990s that their beliefs ossified into dogma. The doctrine of free-market economics, one not inevitably tied to conservatism, was elevated to the status of a secular religion. Intelligent and practical policies of the kind advocated by the Good Right are now rejected as ideologically impure. A more politically adroit Conservative Party would harness the public discontent against the corporate sector, championing the “little man” in the manner of the trust-busting Republican president Theodore Roosevelt. The current one has rejected a “mansion tax” on the grounds that: “Our donors will never put up with it.”

Should they lose in May, the Tories may yet again draw the wrong conclusions, marching even further into the wilderness of Europhobia. But the party’s economic modernisers would at least have a window of opportunity to shape its future. Defeat to Miliband, a man they will remorselessly ridicule between now and polling day, could be the jolt the Tories need to awake from their dogmatic slumber.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.