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Tories: down and out

FOLLOWING THEIR third successive general election defeat, the first time this has happened since the 19th century, the Tories are in turmoil. A long list of leadership candidates are lining up after Michael Howard announced he would be stepping down. But there is also much soul searching and talk of the need to discuss the party’s ‘purpose’ and beliefs.

The election vote of 32.3% was very similar to 2001, but defeat came despite the lack of enthusiasm for Tony Blair, with Labour achieving the lowest ever percentage popular vote of any governing party (36%). In fact, the main theme of Labour’s election campaign towards the end was: ‘If you don’t vote for us you will get the Tories’, playing on the hatred that most working-class people have for that party.

Not only did the Tories fail to win disillusioned working-class votes, they also failed to win back the so-called ‘middle England’ vote. They have gone from being the premier party of British capitalism to, at best, the ‘second eleven’. Labour, successfully transformed into a thoroughly big-business party, was backed by both The Economist and the Financial Times, with figures such as Virgin boss, Richard Branson, saying that the difference between Labour and the Tories was ‘negligible’ for business. But where does this leave the Tories now?

The Tory party’s past social base amongst the middle layers in society is indicated by the 2.8 million members it had in the 1950s. Today, it claims less than 300,000, with an average age in the mid-60s. Of course, Labour’s membership has also declined – halving in the last eight years – reflecting disillusionment in all the main parties. Tory chairman, Francis Maude, however, has admitted to the decrepit state of the party’s organisation. A third of the constituency associations have less than 100 members, about 200 are ineffective, and "some have ceased to function at all".

The lack of trust by Tory MPs in the party membership is shown by their vote to remove any democratic role for members in the selection of a new leader, leaving it entirely up to MPs. The membership would be more likely to select a hard-right candidate, which the ‘modernisers’ in the party believe would be disastrous. Before Howard, the only leader to be elected by the membership, Iain Duncan Smith, did not last long because of opposition from within the parliamentary party.

Despite this, candidates from all wings of the party are jostling for position. The bookies’ favourite is right-winger David Davies, shadow home secretary, with David Cameron, ‘moderniser’ and shadow education secretary, second. But even veteran ‘one nation conservative’, Ken Clark, has indicated he might stand if he has a "reasonably good prospect of winning". Some MPs are anxious to get the waiting over, and have talked about triggering a vote of no confidence in Howard to force an early election. Others are talking about the need for time for the party to discuss what it stands for before it can recover.

Lord Saatchi, famous for the ‘Labour isn’t working’ poster in the 1979 election, identifies a key reason for the Tories’ problems: "Ever since New Labour put on Tory economic clothes, Conservatives have been in a blue funk". To this we could add the clothes of social issues such as immigration and asylum, crime, etc, that Labour has stolen from them.

On the one hand, the Tories have not recovered from the hatred of Thatcherism by millions. On the other hand, Labour has adopted the very same policies! How do they define themselves as something different? Saatchi appears to be advocating a return to the clarity of Thatcher – making a ‘moral case’ for lower taxes and a ‘smaller state’, that is, drastic cuts in services and even more privatisation. He says: "If you stand for something you will have people for you and people against you. But if you stand for nothing you will have nobody for you and nobody against you".

A group of newer MPs and activists calling themselves ‘Direct Democracy’ are calling for a ‘New Model Party’. They admit that "the Tories are seen as the establishment party, the party of public schools and London clubs and black tie dinners". They say they want to learn from the US Republicans and talk about more ‘localism’, accountability and less state interference.

The reality is that if the Tories continue in a downward decline it could, in the future, lead to potential splits in the party between the right-wing populists and the ‘modernisers’. At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that, with economic crisis and class conflict looming for the Labour government, the Tories could make a comeback at some stage, even with Gordon Brown instead of Blair as the Labour Party leader.

Part of Labour’s survival for three terms has been the relative economic stability. Of course, it has been a period of growing inequality, attacks on the welfare state and public services. But the world economic situation has been favourable to Labour. This is likely to change in the near future and, given the current lack of a mass workers’ party, the Tories could make gains again. A severe economic crisis could shatter Labour’s supremacy, maybe having a similar impact as the 1992 ‘Black Wednesday’ fiasco (when the pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism) and its aftermath had on the Tories.

Despite the different formulas put forward by different sections of the party to solve their crisis, and despite the search for ‘the right leader’, to a large degree the Tories’ fate is out of their hands. It rests to a significant extent on the fate of New Labour.

Steve Score


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