The great liberal city of Manchester, one of the last redoubts of the Labour Party, plays host to the Conservatives on 3-6 October. Where better than Albert Square, in the company of a statue of the Victorian free-trade reformer John Bright, for a gathering of a party in the throes of an identity crisis? Some of the attendant Tories still regard themselves as market liberals; others want to conserve the way things are.
The predicament of the Labour Party, caught between its former strongholds in the industrial north of England and its new urban, bourgeois vote, has received a lot of attention since Boris Johnson’s Tories won the 2019 election. Sebastian Payne’s book Broken Heartlands is the latest in what is becoming a small cottage industry on the subject. But less has been said about the identity crisis gripping the Conservatives, which, as household incomes are depleted, might become the story of an autumn of discontent.
The Conservative Party has long had a deep fault line. The Manchester conference centre in which it will meet is near the site where in 1853 Bright’s fellow anti-Corn Law campaigner Richard Cobden built the Free Trade Hall as a monument to their great victory for market liberalism. The repeal of the Corn Laws split the Tory party into two factions: the liberals under Peel and the protectionist voices of the merchants. The division is still there now. The row will be heard loudest in conference fringe meetings on planning reform. The market Tory wants more development; the protectionist Tory wants to conserve the landscape.
This division has taken a new form in recent years. In 2019, for the first time in British politics, class was no longer any use in predicting affiliation. The Conservative Party performed better among working-class C2DE voters (48 per cent) than it did among middle-class ABC1 voters (43 per cent), and Labour won 33 per cent in both categories. The new Tory vote is older than it used to be and relatively poorly educated. Labour beat the Tories among those who have a degree by 43 per cent to 29 per cent. Among those voters whose highest level of education is GCSE or lower, the Conservatives beat Labour by more than two to one.
The coalition of Conservative supporters is based on security and protection, bound together by age, education and attitude, and it is about to undergo a severe test. The shortage of HGV drivers, the spike in energy prices, the end of furlough, rent increases, and a significant rise in food prices as the supermarket shelves empty all threaten to cause a serious crisis in the cost of living. A depletion in household income will hurt in Tory-voting places that are far from wealthy.
The crisis runs along the Tory fault line. The protectionist Tory argued forcefully during the long Brexit dispute for policing the border more tightly and reducing immigration. The free-trade Tory retorted that depleting the supply of labour will, in the end, reduce living standards. The dilemma has been posed in the unexpected form of a shortage of lorry drivers. The protectionist Tory is being taught a lesson in supply and demand. Make your country less attractive to foreign goods drivers and, before long, petrol doesn’t get delivered to filling stations and supermarkets run low on food.
This looks like the recipe for a conventional political disaster. The rules of politics really will have been repealed if a loss of household income has no consequences. Yet defying convention is exactly what Johnson offers his party. This is the Prime Minister’s great skill: he can talk himself out of contradictions.
It is possible that the Tories’ new voters will prove to be resilient. To be a pensioner is no longer a proxy for being poor. In his study of the 2019 election Michael Ashcroft found that among the over-65s the cost of living ranked as the issue of lowest importance. Among their biggest concerns was immigration. It may be that they are able to live with what they wished for.
The prospect that scares the sophisticated Tory strategists, though, is that, even when the fuel scare is over, their vote will simply fade. The Chesham and Amersham by-election gave the party a fright. In July the Conservatives dropped 8 percentage points in seats they held in the south and east of England, according to polling from YouGov. These were all seats that voted Remain in 2016 and have a higher-than-average concentration of university degree holders. Anxious Tories worry that these seats point the way to where Britain is going. The large baby-boomer generation will not be with us long and Britain is becoming a better educated country, which brings with it a greater liberal sensibility. It seems that the old Tory dilemma will slowly be resolved on the liberal side.
The question for the Conservative Party, then, is not whether it can keep its coalition together. The question is whether, when the time comes, the Tories can adapt to a new electorate again. From David Cameron to Theresa May to Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party has shifted in both tone and character. Its flexibility is its elixir.
This is also the trait that most annoys opponents of the Conservatives. For people on the left, to whom principles come naturally, being flexible sounds like an absence of guiding beliefs. To the Tories, who believe in both market liberalism and protectionism, it seems like the necessary pragmatism that makes for political success.
The Conservative coalition is fragile. The cost-of-living crisis is real. But never underestimate the Tories’ capacity to reinvent themselves when their grip on power is at stake.
This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age