Cameron needs to worry about the Tories' Tea Party tendency

The drift of some Tory MPs into a moralising absolutism is as big a threat as Ukip to the party's election chances.

There has been a fair amount of commentary around today about Lord Ashcroft’s latest jumbo opinion poll. The Tory peer's particular area of interest on this occasion is the views of people who vote Ukip or consider doing so. The top line conclusion – literally the headline that Ashcroft puts on his blog – is that hatred of the European Union is not the chief driver of support for Nigel Farage’s party. Crime and immigration are much bigger factors.

That confirms previous findings as does the excavation of data to show that it isn’t just Tory voters defecting to Ukip. The party is peeling away support from Labour and the Lib Dems too, although not at the same rate as it secures Tory defectors. (The Times led this morning with its own poll showing a Ukip surge eating into David Cameron’s base.)

There is a lot to digest in the report but one point leaps out. Ukip supporters know theirs is a protest vote, in the sense that they want to send an explicit signal of anger to Westminster mainstream parties. They believe Farage says things that no-one else has the courage to say about the decline, decay and corruption of British life. Voting Ukip, in other words, is to some extent a qualitatively different kind of electoral participation to voting for Labour, the Lib Dems or Tories. It is an act of ballot box rage, not necessarily a granting of permission to govern. Ashcroft summarises some of his focus group responses as follows:

“They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame. They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better. UKIP, with its single unifying theory of what is wrong and how to put it right, has obvious attractions for them …

[They are] part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.”

The list of complaints will be familiar to anyone who has ever spoke to BNP voters. It is a mix of misconstrued and exaggerated claims about “political correctness gone mad” with quite paranoid delusions. (Where can you not fly a George Cross, for goodness sake? During a major football tournament is hard to avoid one.) There is also a whiff of hostility to the idea of an arrogant do-gooder government meddling in people’s life, expressed in Ashcroft’s list as a frustrated urge to smack children.

I have come across the same sentiment when speaking to former Labour voters who backed the BNP in 2010 with regard to the smoking ban. It wasn’t a big electoral issue in Westminster but it plainly got right on the nerves of some people who thought depriving them of a fag in the pub was adding insult to the wider injury of  opening the floodgates of immigration and handing out council houses to foreigners. Ukip has found a special niche in the British political market place for a far right party that looks respectable.

These anti-politics, anti-government ideas are becoming quite deeply embedded in parts of British society. It is worth pointing out that, while Ukip is clearly causing the most anxiety for the Tories at the moment, a cultural phenomenon that sees government as pernicious and politics as an expression of arrogance and venality is bad news for the left.

Ed Miliband is finding it hard enough persuading people to trust Labour with their money when so many think the party splurged it all the last time they were in power. That task is not going to be made easier when people also think any government by a mainstream party will make self-serving choices and can’t be trusted. Conservatives have at least developed a way of speaking to the public that concedes the basic point that state action is more likely to be pernicious than helpful. Labour has to rehabilitate the whole idea of government intervention before it can sell itself as the most desirable interveners on the shelf.

There is every chance that a lot of those voters currently saying they support Ukip will drift back to a mainstream party for a general election. In that case, it is a reasonable assumption that of those returning to more established political homes, a majority will go to the Tories. Combine that with some trickle back from Labour to the Lib Dems (as is not impossible if the economy picks up a bit and memories of old tuition fee perfidy fade) and Ed Miliband’s lead looks quite vulnerable.

It is also quite possible that there is now a permanent fracture between those who think politics is a creditable pursuit practiced by established professionals and those who think it is all villainy. The emergence of an anti-Westminster cult – a new political hierarchy that puts moral distance from the capital at its apex – is strongly reminiscent of the American Tea Party movement with its histrionic abhorrence of Washington elites (and its tendency to conjure up fictional conspiracy against the mainstream white Christian culture).

The Tories would be well advised to consider the comparison. Lib Dems already like to deride a “Tea Party” element on Cameron’s back benches. It has been out in force in recent weeks during debates over Europe and gay marriage. There lies the greater long-term threat to Conservative election chances. Defection of Conservative supporters to Ukip is plainly a problem for the Prime Minister, although many can be won back once they have given Brussels a kicking in 2014 elections to the European parliament. As big a danger is the drift of some Tory MPs into a moralising absolutism. They brook no compromise and eye with unhidden envy Ukip's basking in anti-politics outrage. It isn’t just the angry voters Cameron needs to worry about, it is the Tea Party tendency that the anger brings out in his own party.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on December 19, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.