Nicolas Webb presents his analysis of the current state of the Conservative Party and options for post-Brexit conservatism
A context of chaos
It is a mess. What was once a simmering disagreement between hard-line Eurosceptics and business-friendly internationalists is now – in “media-speak” – blue on blue rhetorical conflict. Tensions which had been more muted before the then Foreign Secretary was allowed to duck a major, but politically inconvenient, vote, are now out in the open. Wales has been at the forefront of the drama with twitter spats, disagreements being aired via the press and the implicit manoeuvres in the shadows which led to the resignation of Andrew RT Davies. Though each only holds attention for a short period until the next piece of falling Government debris hits the news cycle.
One cannot blame Labour for the Conservatives’ tumult. But the lack of credible opposition has been critical in allowing Tory tribes to emerge, each seeking to yank policy in their direction with little thought for the electorate’s views beyond their own membership, core vote or constituency. The theory of a divided party losing an election is irrelevant when the only two shows in town are both riven with infighting.
Labour has succumbed to an internal shift to left wing populism with policies driven by ideological purity of method rather than assessed by outcome. This inevitably narrows the audience for their message. As disagreements appear, the hard left simply dismisses party colleagues as “Blairites” or says they should “go and join the Tories”, often worded less politely. Despite no confidence votes, a leadership challenge, a lost election, and more than 100 front bench resignations, it remains unclear what mechanism that party will use to return to the political mainstream. The rise of the hard left has allowed some Tories, typically those with safe seats, to revel in the nostalgia of old battles of the 1980s. This is a throwback to long-settled debates about economic monetarism and the means of production that have little relevance to modern Britain.
There is however a difference between these two dogs’ dinners of political parties in that the phoenix of conservatism has a better fighting chance than that of Labour. Whereas the hard left of Labour has sought to change the party’s constitution to make continuity Corbynism more likely, the Conservative Party structure – flaws and meritocratic opaqueness included – remains pretty much untouched.
The future of the Conservative Party or conservatism
The Conservative Party has repeatedly reinvented itself during its long and successful history. Typically, it has favoured pragmatic steps to improvement over the distant idealism of the left. Despite its name, the party has had moments of dramatic radicalism.
The viability of the party is not simply about policy but requires organisational reform. To the outside world, the Conservative Party is a single entity. However, that whole is made up of three elements: the elected party, the professional party, and the voluntary party. The relationship between the first and third has been strained by Brexit. The relationship between the first and second sees undue pressure from the former on the latter, creating conflicts of interest. The relationship between the second and the third is often fractious, with the membership feeling undervalued. Buck-passing is commonplace; individuals taking responsibility less so. While not exclusively a concern in Wales, we have a prime example with the question mark over who is leader of the Welsh Conservative Party. Political opponents understandably use this to attack the Tories for failing to embrace or adapt to the reality of devolution, but that is not the primary cause. It actually suits the party, as currently structured, to have an opaqueness which offers scope for plausible deniability over accountability. It should go without saying that this is not a healthy state of affairs for a party which advocates meritocracy and scrutiny in Government.
Post-2015, Labour’s membership underwent a jolt to the left. The Tories did not experience such a dramatic shift, but since the 2016 referendum there has been a marked change in the relative volume and prominence of opinions. Brexit has emboldened social conservatives. This is not just at Westminster. As David Cameron once accurately noted, “Twitter isn’t Britain”; but Young Conservative officers engaging in the language of culture wars on issues of migration and identity, without any obvious concern being shown by the party, is a shift from where the youth wing of the party was ten years ago.
Among the membership across the UK, a desire for Brexit, or to ‘just get on with it’, is very prominent. This strengthens the hand of Eurosceptic MPs and often constrains scrutiny of the Brexit process to a few MPs who serve very pro-EU constituencies. That is not to criticise Brexiteer MPs who are representing their constituents and responding to the outcome of the referendum. But it is to acknowledge the shifting patterns of influence.
With this comes a risk. The Conservative Party delivering a successful Brexit can win mass appeal. A predominantly Brexit party using the Conservative brand as a vehicle for leaving the EU would diminish its electoral appeal. That business people and social liberals have not had a plausible alternative option has, thus far, helped the Tory coalition to just about hold together. That could change.
No political party has an unquestioned right to exist forever. That is not to predict that the demise or permanent division of the Conservative Party is around the corner. But if and when such a day comes, it is likely to happen suddenly and with little warning. The speed of politics appears to have accelerated dramatically since the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Whereas a week was once a long time in politics, today a tweet can be a long time in politics.
What we can be more confident of is the continuation of conservatism in the political if not dictionary definition sense. Beneath the surface of the Brexit machinations there are signs of debate over what this future conservatism could look like, with the emergence of think tanks such as Freer, Onward and the Big Tent ideas festival.
The stark result of the 2017 General Election and dire poll ratings for the party among young voters has led to consideration of how best to respond. Why does the globalised millennial, with their iPhone in one hand and flat white in a reusable cup in the other, opt for the protectionist tendencies which would underpin a Corbyn-led government? The desire among young people for a globalised free market economy is sound. But it is less clear that they are craving an ever-freer market. Indeed, having grown up knowing little other than the reforms of the Thatcher revolution, a market-based economy is simply seen as the starting base for policy rather than a hard-earned achievement. The term ‘privatisation’ has become so abused by its ideological opponents that it requires a prolonged effort to highlight its great democratising effects in providing what the people want and allowing for niche industries to cater for the needs of minority interest groups who would simply be ignored with a big state, one size fits all, approach. Yet, in highlighting the benefits of a people-powered market, Conservatives must also call out the failings of bad privatisation when it does not empower the consumer, such as in the case of railways. Getting something off the Government’s books is not the same as empowering the many.
Austerity and debt interest
Economic argument was a notable absentee from the 2017 General Election. While the Conservatives still hold an edge over Labour on the credibility of their financial management, Momentum-charged Labour has rallied opposition to austerity. And the Tory response has been a limp suggestion of the mess our economy would be in under Corbyn. What is missing is any attempt to focus minds on the £1 billion per week which could be spent on public services or provide tax cuts, but that is currently lost to debt interest. Good governance requires reducing that debt interest and by doing so, more funds will be available. A Conservative process to achieve a progressive end.
There must also be proper scrutiny of the priorities of austerity. In a polarised Westminster it can be too easy for one side to demand spending and the other defend austerity, without scrutinising the decisions within a policy of the country living within its means. For example, is a reduction in police numbers a saving or a hindrance to an environment which fosters economic growth? Allowing the distortion of the debate to simply be over whether austerity is a good or bad policy in turn has constrained proper scrutiny of decision making in the Senedd. The Welsh Government has a propensity to blame Westminster rather than take responsibility for their own considerable scope of governance. Engaging in the specifics of the economics of austerity and a preparedness to highlight and correct failures would strengthen the overall Conservative case for their economic model.
The UK is on a trajectory of social and economic liberalism which has replaced old arguments about the means of production and the profit motive. That is not to pretend that every issue has been resolved; battles over social justice and fairer markets remain. Nonetheless the economic model of Margaret Thatcher, adopted by Tony Blair, and the social model which had its origins largely in social democracy and liberalism and was gradually merged into modern conservatism prior to a welcome acceleration under David Cameron, have, in essence, established a path ahead which may not arouse electoral enthusiasm, precisely because it has become the accepted norm.
Understanding the future of conservatism rests in adapting the age-old principles to the modern context. The market is the output from a great exercise in democracy. Responding to what people want will succeed in a way that no central planner could ever cater for. However, the state cannot be entirely hands-off either. By respecting the market and understanding the trends which underpin it, Government at national and local levels can plan to enhance the gains for the community by working with the grain. Here are some suggestions as to what a Market Framework future could look like:
- Tax simplification would boost enterprise and reduce scope for avoidance, producing a fairer marketplace within clear rules.
- Equality of opportunity does not occur simply by freeing people from government interference, but by tailoring their interaction with a state which understands, respects and supports their individuality.
- A successful market-based solution will always require rules, regulations and state involvement. But if this is clear and non-oppressive then the small start-up can thrive and deliver innovation.
- If we want cities which are clean, pleasant, sustainable, and income-generating, then the infrastructure needs to be in place: from trams to policing and from skills training to improved health outcomes. Planning can support the market rather than be seen as its enemy.
- The majority want to own their home. Data tells us that homeowners are more likely to vote Conservative. A huge building programme should be second nature to the Party. As it is, successive governments have over-promised and under-delivered. Some claim that housing is an example of market failure. Yet the market doesn’t have a chance to deliver due to a planning system which prioritises the views of existing residents (often championed by local politicians) over the demonstrable needs of the people who would gain from development. Yes, it must be sustainable, desirable, and have sufficient infrastructure; but those are all achievable; what needs to happen most is building. Liberalisation of planning is the minimum which should be considered. A radical approach could be government investment and direction in line with market indicators to build new homes which would be available for sale. Help to Buy allowed some a foot on the housing ladder but increased demand and did not directly tackle the failure of supply. Upfront costs would be substantial, but the long-term benefit would be a home owning society and a leap up the ladder of social mobility.
I have merely touched on ideas for this article. But what I have pitched follows the theme of a clear framework from which free people and a market economy can build. Whether the Conservatives are seeking to reinvent themselves at Westminster, or the leadership contenders in Wales are looking to deliver a new vision, there is need to present a fresh vision as to what post-Brexit conservatism will aim to achieve.
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