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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses