I am slowly coming to terms with Britain’s recent general election. So far I have published my thoughts on my own party, the Lib Dems. I actually spend more of my time following and thinking about Labour. This is partly displacement activity and partly because what happens to that party is so important for mine. But the party that dominates UK politics is the Conservatives. It is a big mistake for those on the left (which I suppose I am) to turn inwards on themselves without first taking a long hard look at the success of the right.
In some ways the rise of the Tories is more surprising than the implosion of Labour. Not so long ago the party was being written off. It was riven by divisions, and its core vote was threatened by Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party. It came fourth in May’s European elections. Its new leader, Boris Johnson, was uninspiring, with a limited and unpromising record in government. But Mr Johnson’s focus on political power was relentless, and he has vanquished his opponents. He ruthlessly crushed TBP and then, just as ruthlessly, exploited weaknesses in Labour’s platform and leadership, and in doing so punctured the resurgent Lib Dems. He and his advisers showed excellent political judgement through all this, but that is an insufficient explanation of their success. They had an advantageous strategic position too. Politicians of the right are able to establish broad appeal across social classes, routing the left and making liberals look irrelevant.
We have seen this in a number of countries, notably with Donald Trump’s success in the USA. Far right parties have done well in Europe too, though they have only achieved control of the government in Poland and Hungary – largely because proportional electoral systems have kept them in check, and also because of the singular success of Emanuel Macron in France, the other major European country not to use a proportional system. Much has been written about this. The striking thing about the Tory example is that it has established a particularly wide coalition of voters, adding up to 44% of those that voted (though this comparable to Mr Trump and to PIS in Poland). This was not in fact much higher in 2019 than in the previous election in 2017, but they drew in a lot of new voters from Labour in the north and middle of England, and in Wales, while shedding votes to the Lib Dems in places that did not matter so much electorally. Britain’s electoral system rewards some coalitions much more than others, and the Tories hit the jackpot this time.
The new Tory voters seem to have been working class and lower middle class ones outside the big cities, and especially older voters. The voters they lost were, as a wild generalisation, middle-aged metropolitan professionals. If there is a common theme to the Tory success it is a combination of nostalgic conservatism, and resentment against a metropolitan elite that looks down on them. One issue crystallised both themes above all: Brexit. It wasn’t so much that they are passionately driven by a wish to leave the EU (though many are), it is the way they thought Remainers were trying to get around the 2016 referendum result. This reinforced all their fears about so-called “progressive” politics. Meanwhile touchstone issues of the left, such as austerity, food banks and student fees didn’t seem to bother these voters much at all.
Will the Tories be able to hang on to these voters, or replace losses with voters from elsewhere? Brexit will after all proceed; it will not be out of the news, of course, but its sting as a political issue may now be drawn. But the experience of Trump and PIS suggests that they might. The 2016 referendum has changed British politics fundamentally – much as the 2014 independence referendum changed Scottish politics. The left will struggle to find an alternative narrative as compelling as the one of nostalgia and victimhood peddled by the right – though the left peddle lots of nostalgia and victimhood too. I will share my thoughts the problems of the left when I come to looking at the Labour Party.
Meanwhile, what are we to expect from the Tories while they are in power for the next four years or so? There are two key figures in this: Mr Johnson and his senior adviser Dominic Cummings. Both have succeeded in spite of the Conservative establishment, and are happy to ditch long-held conventions. Two things stand out about Mr Johnson, both evident from his time as London Mayor. The first is an unwillingness to be held accountable; he evades scrutiny where he can, and says as little as possible of substance. The second is a “just do it” mentality that likes to bulldoze away problems of detail. Both might be refreshing to many people, but there is a considerable dark side. It encourages cronyism and incompetence, which in his time as London Mayor took the form of multiple poorly thought through vanity projects.
Something similar can be said of Mr Cummings, especially when he is in charge running an administrative system rather than a campaign. We saw this when he was senior adviser to Michael Gove when he was minister of education in 2010. Mr Cummings is clever and spiky, despising the bumbling mediocrity of senior administrators and tearing down the structures they have created. But rebuilding something to replace them is much harder. At Education he may have cut through a lot verbiage and nonsense, the legacy 13 years of Labour administration had built huge edifices of the stuff, but the results have been decidedly underwhelming. The signature policy was the replacement of local authority management of schools, which has often proved mediocre in the extreme (if you can have extreme mediocrity), with independent “academy” trusts. This has been bogged down with poor accountability and dodgy practices, such as overpaying senior managers – cronyism and incompetence in fact. Meanwhile the best results in Britain’s schools (and there have been lots of these, contrary to what politicians say) have been achieved through good old-fashioned local authority structures, given appropriate incentives and accountability. The academy revolution has proved a colossal wasted effort.
So cronyism and incompetence will be the hallmarks of this administration, as it has proved for the new right elsewhere in the world. But, as the experience in other countries shows, this will not be fatal for it politically. If they can distract attention with a few socially conservative projects, and the judicious use of cash handouts, then their supporters won’t mind too much, especially. Meanwhile governing institutions will be undermined to stack the odds in favour of the executive, and reforms put in place to tip the odds in their favour at the next election (constituency boundaries and voter ID for starters).
This is not a pleasant prospect. But there is an irony, or paradox, even. The driving idea behind the remaking of the political right is that the country regains a lost moral compass, degraded by the relativism of liberals and multiculturalism of liberals and left alike, a loss that pushes older, less socially advantaged people and those with traditional values to the back of the queue. And yet the new right celebrates cronyism and connections, and undermines traditional ideas of integrity, and that disempowers the less privileged and pushes them even further down the queue. At some point people will come to regret the loss of impartial authority and competence, and rebel against the new elite. Will it then be too late?