Monday, December 17, 2012

Can the Tories survive another decade?

The British Conservative Party is an extremely successful electoral machine. Over the nearly 170 years since it was founded in 1834, it has been in government more than half the time. It is currently the most powerful political party in the UK, holding the largest single bloc of seats in the House of Commons, the largest number of Peers as well as being the largest single British Party in the European Parliament (holding 25 of the 72 British seats) and being a dominant force in local government too, with over 9,000 councillors. In the face of such a record it may seem absurd to even question the future of such a political success story.

Yet the fact is that the Tories are facing a mounting series of challenges which could certainly lead to electoral defeat and potentially political irrelevance within a pretty short period. 

To me, the fundamental problem remains the unresolved merger of economically liberal ideas, which in the Conservative Party, are usually deemed "right-wing" with socially liberal ideas, which are usually deemed "left wing". David Cameron as leader has followed a largely left-wing social agenda, even as he has tried- with only partial success- to get the country through the economic crisis by following a right-wing economic agenda. However his socially liberal views have allowed his political enemies within the Conservative party to paint him as left wing across the board, which is emphatically not the case. More to the point the social conservatives are both increasingly vocal and increasingly unlikely to give way, even when the majority of their party do not support them. Overlaying this economic and social cleft there remains the poisonous issue of Europe, where an ever more intractable group of Europhobes are refusing to accept any compromise - insisting ever more vocally that the only way is out.

It is not just that the Conservative Party is divided- all political parties comprise differing points of view- it is the bitterness of the divisions and the rancor with which they are held that is making the Conservatives ever less attractive electorally and ever more difficult for a leader- any leader- to chart a safe course. Take Europe, David Cameron is the most Euro-sceptic Prime Minister in British history, he has- very wrongly, in my view- been prepared to veto major EU agreements and has been highly critical of the policies of other EU governments. You might think that the Tory Europhobes would regard him with some approval, but in fact far from it. The social conservatives and the anti-Europeans are fanatics in the classical definition, they won't change their minds and they won't change the subject, yet they have to function in a political world. Cameron has to function within the EU under a series of functional compromises, yet his own side regard such compromises not as an essential political tool, but as a betrayal,

When every decision is viewed through such a distorted prism, it becomes ever more difficult to make a decisions at all. In the circumstances it was only a matter of time before such dinosaurs as Peter Hitchens or Janet Daley would start to speculate over David Cameron's job security- but the issue they have made a litmus test, gay marriage, is a battle the social conservatives have long ago lost. Even the deeply social conservative "Cornerstone Group" (aka "Tombstone") has not been able to muster too much resistance, yet the noise that they have made simply reminds the voters how far behind the times so many Tories still are. Indeed, with an average age well into middle age, the Conservative membership is ageing pretty rapidly out of existence. In fact these Tory activists have been defecting to UKIP in some numbers, but it is a measure of how powerless party members are that the Conservative Party itself remains largely unaffected- it has become a virtual campaigning organisation, using paid deliverers and highly targeted voter ID software.

So with membership falling, and the growing perception that the party, even when on the popular side of the argument, can not effectively formulate or follow through its ideas, the Conservatives are on a slippery slope. Of course many would say that the coalition was to blame, and that the Tories will merely follow the depths that the Lib Dems have already plumbed. Yet there are signs that the Lib Dems could be poised for a modest, but significant recovery. As UKIP nibbles away at the right of the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have been winning significant numbers of council by-elections too. Given the bizarre maths of the British electoral system, it does not take that many votes to fall away before major damage can be inflicted on a political party.

A UKIP/Lib Dem squeeze on the Tories- sounds like wishful thinking, yet in some contests it has already been happening.      

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