As the Tory government limps on, under the rule of the fifth Tory prime minister in six years, HANNAH SELL analyses the economic and social roots of the Conservative Party’s long decline.
Over recent months the Tory Party has teetered on the brink of collapse. First Boris Johnson was ousted as prime minister amidst an avalanche of scandals. His replacement, Liz Truss, lasted just 45 days, making her the shortest-ever serving prime minister.
Then, over the weekend following her resignation, with the Tories at an all-time low of 14% in opinion polls, it appeared that Johnson was going to make a comeback. He claimed he had the 102 nominations from Tory MPs needed to appear on the ballot paper. Had his name been on the ballot of Tory Party members, it was overwhelmingly likely he would have re-won the leadership. He could not, however, have governed the parliamentary Tory Party, which would have finally imploded. Just one indication of this was the widespread reports of Tory MPs threatening to defect to Labour had Johnson been re-elected.
In the end Johnson didn’t stand, possibly because he didn’t get the nominations necessary, or because he didn’t want to lose the gargantuan fees he is making on the celebrity speaker circuit. He may well also have had an eye to a future return at a more propitious moment and did not wish to bear the tag of ‘loser’, as he might have been in the vote among Tory MPs, and almost certainly at the next general election. What is certain, though, is that he came under huge pressure from large sections of the capitalist class not to act so irresponsibly and finally destroy what was once the most successful capitalist party on the planet.
For sixty years of the twentieth century governments were Tory or Tory-led. They were very effectively able to mediate the interests of different sections of the capitalist class – managing the clashes between manufacturing and finance sectors for example – largely behind closed doors, while maintaining the support of wide sections of the middle class and a layer of workers. Aneurin Bevan put it, “how can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power? Here lies the whole art of Conservative politics in the twentieth century”.
Now, in the twenty-first century, they have been publicly tearing each other apart, with “blood and thunder and eye-gouging” as former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson described it, are unable to see more than a few weeks ahead, and are no longer reliable representatives of the interests of British capitalism. Most importantly, the Tories have lost the social base which Bevan described.
Sunak only pauses the slide
However, the coronation of Rishi Sunak did create a momentary pause in the Tory Party’s demise. Sunak and Hunt’s autumn statement demonstrated how much more reliable, from the point of view of the majority of the British capitalist class, the new Tory leaders are. It appeared to reassure the markets, whilst simultaneously attempting to offload the pain for doing so onto the working class via ‘Austerity Mark II’ and increasing taxes to the highest level percentage of GDP since the second world war. At the same time, however, unlike the crude pro-rich approach of Truss, multi-millionaire Hunt dressed up his savage attacks on the working class with emollient words about ‘sharing the burden’ and ‘helping the poorest’, whilst also delaying some of the austerity beyond the next general election.
The autumn statement also demonstrated that the Tory crisis is not, fundamentally, a question of the skill, or lack of it, of individual Tory politicians. It is rooted in the long inglorious decline of British capitalism, which has eaten away at the foundations of the Tory party over decades, and now leaves it increasingly incapable of governing as British capitalism enters a new, more intense, phase of crisis, while the working class starts to fight to defend its living standards.
It is already clear that the autumn statement will not unite the Tory Party. The day afterwards Robert Shrimley accurately summed up the likely consequences for it in the Financial Times: “Many of the measures fall hardest on core supporters and the Tory press is likely to pummel this statement fairly quickly. If a party which is increasingly pessimistic about its future loses faith it can win the next election, it will precipitate a fatal collapse in discipline”. (18 November)
As Shrimley predicted it was widely attacked by the right-wing press. The Daily Mail headline was ‘Tories soaking the strivers’ and The Times ‘Years of pain ahead’. The collapse in discipline is also developing apace, with Trussite Tory MPs threatening to vote against tax-increasing measures, likely to be joined by others who don’t want to vote for anything that will increase their chances of losing their seats at the next election. Others are already acting like rats abandoning a rapidly-sinking ship. The deadline is looming for Tory MPs to say whether they want to stand in the next election, and more than fifty Tory MPs are rumoured to have decided to stand down. Some are even considering resigning early because, while it will trigger a by-election that will further damage their party, it will also put them ahead in the race for lucrative post-parliament jobs.
Nor is the autumn statement guaranteed to stabilise the markets for any length of time. The interest payments on government debt are still predicted to be at the highest level, as a proportion of national income, since the 1950s. There is a real risk that new onslaughts by the financial markets will further increase the cost of servicing UK government debt and lead to new slides in the value of sterling.
While Truss’s mini-budget was the trigger for the last attack by the markets, the bond market sharks had already scented blood in the water, as a result of the weakened state of British capitalism. Britain is the only G7 economy not to have reached its pre-pandemic size. The UK economy is already in recession and the OECD predicts it will be the G20’s worst performer bar Russia in the next two years. Over the last six years investment as a percentage of GDP has been by far the lowest of the economically-developed countries. Meanwhile the working class is facing the greatest fall in living standards since the 1930s. Hunt’s reassuring manner cannot overcome these brutal facts.
A comparison can be made between the disastrous mini-budget of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng and Tory chancellor Winston Churchill’s decision in 1925 to return sterling to the gold standard at pre-world war exchange rates, an effective 10% appreciation in sterling. This move was condemned by Keynes as a self-inflicted wound on the economy, but then – like now – there were no policies within the framework of capitalism that could have resolved the fundamental problems of a crisis-inherent system.
Twentieth century success
Yet despite blunders the Tory Party survived the period of the 1920s, which was dominated by gigantic class struggles. Its leadership successfully took on and defeated the greatest strike in British history to date, the mighty 1926 general strike. Unquestionably, had the leadership of the working-class been stronger, the outcome could have been different. Nonetheless, the leadership of the Tory Party in the 1920s was infinitely more capable than the Conservatives today. This is not primarily a question of individual personalities. There was plenty of corruption then as now. There was also no lack of hostility between different Tory politicians. Neville Chamberlain was meant to have said of Stanley Baldwin, the Tory prime minister during the 1926 general strike, that he was “just as simple as he made out”. Reportedly there was more than one shouting match between Baldwin on the one hand and Chamberlain and Churchill on the other, during the period running up to the strike.
Nonetheless, collectively they were able to outmanoeuvre the weak TUC leadership, and Baldwin’s tactics of buying time in 1925 via concessions and trying to swing middle class public opinion proved effective. British capitalism was already in decline, with its increasingly aged and decrepit industry under intense challenge from US and Germany. However, at that stage the growing decay of British capitalism was still masked by the continued existence of the empire, with British imperialism exploiting a quarter of the world’s population. That cushion enabled the long-sighted character of British capitalist politicians.
The further relative decline of British capitalism in the post-second world war period did have a sharp reflection in the Tory Party, above all in the Suez crisis of 1956. Nonetheless, in that period the Conservatives were able to build an unprecedented degree of support. They were estimated to have had three million members. They had the biggest youth wing of any political party in Europe. In the 1950s, in particular, there was a Conservative trade unionists organisation, which stood candidates in trade union elections on a widespread basis.
The Tories base in that period was created by specific, unique, conditions. They included the changed post-war world balance of forces and then the rapid economic growth of following decades, creating a situation where the capitalist class made significant concessions to a strengthened working class in Britain and other advanced capitalist countries. Hence the Tory government of 1951 to 1955 continued many of the policies of the previous Labour government, building – for example – an average of 230,000 council houses a year throughout its term. This approach continued for a whole period.
The rise of Thatcherism
In Britain the end of the post-war upswing had its political reflection in Thatcherism and its savage attacks on the working class. Privatisation of state industries, huge cutbacks in state welfare spending, and an assault on established trade union strength were the order of the day. The era of 1990s globalisation – in reality the increasingly unfettered global movement of capital – was used to bludgeon workers’ wages, terms and conditions in the ‘race to the bottom’. As a result by 2019, if UK workers had got the same share of national income as in the 1970s, the average median full-time salary would have been £5,471 a year higher. Fundamentally, Thatcher’s neo-liberal policies continued under successive ‘New Labour’ governments, which Blair had successfully transformed into an unalloyed capitalist party. Hence Thatcher once said that her greatest achievement was ‘Tony Blair and New Labour’.
The result has been a long-term decline in the support of the two main political parties – Tories and Labour. Whereas in the 1955 general election they got 96.06% of the vote between them, with 2.7% voting Liberal and just 1.2% for ‘other’ parties, in 2010, for example, their combined vote was only 65% of the total. If you include the percentage of the electorate which didn’t vote the figures are even starker. The turnout in the snap 1955 general election was actually low for the time, with 76.8% of electors voting (compared to 82.6% in 1951). Both dwarf the 2010 turnout though, when just 65% of electors voted, meaning that only 42.5% of the electorate voted for the two main parties.
In that general election, after thirteen years of neo-liberal New Labour, the Tories limped back to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They have clung to it in the twelve years since, but their party has been increasingly hollowed out. In 2015 they managed to win a majority, but with the support of only 24.4% of the total electorate. This was the lowest share for any majority government since the introduction of universal male suffrage in 2018. The savage austerity they have implemented has deepened hatred towards them among wide layers of the working class. Membership of the Tory Party fell to 150,000 in 2012 and hasn’t made it back to 200,000 at any point in the decade since. It is overwhelmingly made up of older, richer, white males living in the South of England. It was claimed that Johnson’s right-wing populism won a new generation of workers to the Tories. In fact, while some workers did lend the Tories their vote in 2019, Tory Party membership only increased to 185,000. Even allowing for higher than average death rates, given the age of the Tory membership, no more than 50,000 people – 0.1% of the population – can have decided to waste £25 on joining.
Nonetheless, Johnson was able to win the 2019 general election by using populist rhetoric about getting ‘Brexit done’ and ‘levelling up’. Many on the left wrongly concluded that this was a strong Tory government. From day one, however, we pointed out that he had only won via populist attacks on his own party, and that the deep divisions in his party would soon reappear.
Johnson’s Brexit populism
In fact it was not pre-ordained that Johnson would be able to use the Brexit issue in the way that he did. The Socialist Party backed a ‘leave’ vote in the binary-choice 2016 referendum on EU membership for entirely different reasons to Johnson and the right-wing Leave supporters. Our starting point was fighting for working-class socialist internationalism and opposing the EU bosses’ club, which is driven by maximising the profits of the capitalist elites across the continent. Had Jeremy Corbyn stuck by his historic position on the issue, and also put a ‘Lexit’ position, that view would have had a mass audience. Unfortunately, however, he argued for a remain vote, in one of his first retreats under pressure from Keir Starmer and the pro-capitalist Labour right. That meant that the working-class rage against the capitalist elite which fuelled the leave vote, was harnessed by the right-wing populists and their pipe dream of a return to Britain’s past as a major world power.
Johnson used that to win the 2019 election. His populist character had already been clearly indicated by his willingness to suspend 44 Tory MPs, and his undermining of the courts, the monarchy and parliament, rashly weakening their ability to act as props for the capitalist system in the class struggles of the future. Nonetheless, the majority of the British capitalist class, despite their desire to stay as closely aligned as possible to the EU and their alarm at Johnson’s preparedness to trash their institutions, gritted their teeth and supported him in 2019. They did this for one reason only; they were desperate to ensure the defeat of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party. The enthusiasm for Corbyn’s 2017 anti-austerity manifesto, which resulted in Labour increasing its vote by more than any party had previously done in a single election since 1945, had terrified them. It gave a glimpse of the massive enthusiasm that would have been engendered had he won a general election.
No doubt the capitalist class hoped that, having won a majority, Johnson would retreat and implement ‘Brexit in Name Only’. Johnson, however, was looking not to the best interests of British capitalism but playing to the Daily Express and Daily Mail reading Tory Party membership. One poll of their views in 2019 showed that 61% would have rather seen significant damage to the economy than Brexit not take place, and 54% would have rather seen their own party destroyed. It is likely they will get both of these wishes in the next period!
As soon as Corbynism within Labour was defeated, with Starmer clearly prepared to lead a government that would reliably defend the interests of the elites, wide sections of the capitalist class were undoubtedly itching to force Johnson out. However, as we predicted, the depth of the crisis in their traditional party was demonstrated when he was replaced with Liz Truss! That this short-sighted, ultra-right wing zealot could have had the backing of 113 Tory MPs is an indication of the changed character of the parliamentary Tory Party. Today right populism is not only a strong current in the Tory Party membership, but also among its MPs. Any attempt to meet the demands of much of business to align more closely with the EU single market, or in order to try to find a way to deal with the thorny problem of the Northern Ireland protocol, is met with horror by a significant section of Tory MPs, as indicated by the drama over rumours of attempts to find a ‘Swiss-style’ deal. Nor is the fractured Tory Party only divided into ultra-Brexiteers and ‘the rest’. On the contrary – from Johnsonites, to the hard-line European Research Group, to the new MPs from more working-class constituencies who feel that pressure, to more ‘traditional’ Tories – the MPs are split into a myriad of interconnected but discordant factions.
A terminal paralysis?
Faced with this divided Tory Party, the current government has extremely limited room to manoeuvre. The number of issues which could lead to new splits in the parliamentary party is numerous. Domestic potential flashpoints alone include tax increases, the new round of austerity which will push some services to collapse point, the Northern Ireland protocol, planning law, a new round of PPE corruption revelations, and more besides. In mid-November alone Sunak was forced into two U-turns by Tory MPs rebellions; one on house-building targets, and one on onshore wind farms. On the latter he faced rebellion from two former leaders of his party – Truss and Johnson.
The government is increasingly paralysed. However, it cannot follow the advice of Martin Wolf (the Financial Times Chief Economics Correspondent) “to stop doing stupid stuff” by stopping doing anything at all, and, in reality, sit it out and wait for Labour to win the next general election. It faces numerous issues on which it has to attempt to act. Above all it faces growing numbers of workers who, faced with falling living standards, are taking strike action to demand pay rises.
If the government refuses to make concessions to public sector workers, and continues to block the rail companies from doing so, it will face a rising tide of struggle. Against this background continuing with Truss’s minimum-service legislation, designed to undermine the rail strikes, risks the kind of humiliating defeat recently suffered by the Canadian Ontario State government, where 55,000 members of the Union of Public Employees responded to a strike ban by walking out on what was a now illegal strike on Friday 4 November. Trade unions across the private and public sector threatened to join them in a general strike, and by Monday morning the legislation was withdrawn.
Of course, no matter how weak the Tory government, victory for the workers’ movement is not guaranteed. Coordinating the struggles, and building for a 24-hour general strike, however, could quickly force them out of office. And there are no easy options for the government. They may be tempted to make concessions to some groups in order to limit the strikes. Doing so, however, at a time of a generalised fall in real wages, would inevitably give confidence to others to take action.
Under these pressures, a complete fracturing of the Tory Party forcing Sunak into a general election before the parliamentary term ends remains a real possibility. Even if the current government limps on more or less intact until a late-2024 election, they are almost certain to go down to defeat, probably a decisive one. Whether it is before or after a general election a reconfiguration of British politics is underway. Elements currently in the Tory Party could end up crossing the benches to join Starmer’s pro-capitalist New Labour. On the other side a right-populist party with more substance than UKIP is likely to emerge from the Tory wreckage.
Why does it matter? Under the impact of crises numerous other traditional capitalist parties have imploded over recent decades. Some have regrouped and come back to power. The Canadian Tories, for example, went from leading a majority government to being reduced to two MPs in the 1993 general election. Subsequently they merged with another right-wing party and were able to return to government for a period.
Others, like the Republicans in France, have never recovered. Their candidate received just 4.8% of the vote in this year’s Presidential elections. But of course, the capitalist class will always find another means to rule until the working-class is able to take power out of their hands. In France the current President Macron, formerly a member of the social democratic Socialist Party (PS) and a PS government minister, acts reliably in their interests. In Britain Starmer will do the same. In fact it is clear that much of the British capitalist class are now certain that Labour would do a better job of defending their interests than the Tories. The Financial Times reported at this year’s Confederation of British Industry that Starmer was greeted with unprecedented enthusiasm, with delegates even whooping, unheard of in their hallowed halls. Sunak, by contrast, had an extremely lukewarm response.
That is why what is urgently needed is for the working class to start to develop its own mass party to fight for its interests in Westminster and the council chambers. Nonetheless, the crumbling of the Tory Party – a capitalist institution which once seemed so permanent – is significant. Over recent months the travails of the Tories have done a little to raise the spirits of millions of people who are suffering under Tory rule.
In the next period we could see the greatest division in the Tory Party since the 1846 schism over the repeal of the Corn Laws. That division led to the development of the modern Tory Party on the one hand, and what became the Liberal Party on the other. It also resulted in the Tories being out of power for almost thirty years. That split took place when British capitalism was in the ascendency however, the next implosion will be against the background of its decline.
Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary, once said of Britain in the 1920s that “it is possible to put the matter like this: the richer, stronger, mightier, cleverer, firmer a bourgeoisie has proved to be, the more it has succeeded in holding back the ideological and consequently the revolutionary development of the proletariat”. (Through What Stage Are We Passing, 1924)
Today the crisis of capitalist political representation, summed up by the palpably weak, stupid, divided character of the Conservatives, is a factor in leading millions of working class people to draw the conclusion that this system doesn’t work, and to begin to look for a socialist alternative. The likely future reconfiguration of British politics, including sections of the current Tories switching to Labour, will also assist workers in drawing the conclusion that Starmer’s Labour is a big business party, and that a pro-working class political voice is urgently needed. The experience of a Starmer-led Labour government can only drive that lesson home.
Like the Tories before them they will be implementing austerity on behalf of ailing British capitalism, and will be doing so with a weak social base. In the era of the Great Recession it was not only traditional capitalist parties in France, Greece and elsewhere that were shattered by carrying out brutal attacks on the working class, but also the equivalents of Starmer’s New Labour.