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The Crumbling Foundations of the Conservative Party

The Conservative Party is in power and, it appears, in the ascendancy. But a new book argues that it has eroded the security that once turned young people into Tories – and that its future is far from certain.

Boris Johnson speaks at the Conservative Party conference. (Credit: Getty)

Britain’s Conservative Party is the most successful political party in the history of Western democracy. Of the twenty men and two women to have led the party, just four have failed to become Prime Minister. Of the forty-seven general elections it has contested since its creation, it has won the most votes in twenty-five of them and formed governments after twenty-three. Of the twenty-six fought in the twentieth century alone it won the most votes in seventeen. And while it spent the first decade of the twenty-first century in opposition, it has gained votes in every general election for the past twenty years.

Even the supposedly disastrous election campaign of Theresa May in 2017, and the remarkable mobilisation of the Labour vote around Jeremy Corbyn, cannot disguise the fact that even then the Conservatives were creating an electoral coalition comparable to the size of Margaret Thatcher’s at her height. Now, in the depths of a devastating pandemic, with hundreds of thousands dead, and a culture war, stoked by government ministers, that has left England’s football team pelted with racist abuse, the Conservative Party continues to enjoy polling leads in the double digits.

As such, to write a book in this context claiming that the Conservative Party is actually in decline is not only provocative, but appears to fly in the face of all evidence or metrics of measurement. Yet in Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain, Phil Burton-Cartledge has carefully sketched out a totally different image of the Conservative Party’s history over the last forty years. Through a sociological focus on both the Conservative Party’s membership and voting coalition, and by looking at the structural and demographic consequences of its policies in government, Burton-Cartledge argues that the party has consistently pursued a short-termist programme that has served its immediate electoral priorities, while at the same time sowing the seeds for its own decline.

Starting with the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, Burton-Cartledge covers some familiar ground in Britain’s recent history. Thatcherism is presented as a hegemonic project in not only the ideological messages it disseminated (not least through an increasingly sympathetic press) but in the tangible refashioning of the electorate it pursued. Through the mass sale of council houses and encouraging the share-ownership of privatised industries, Thatcher sought to create new Tory voters by encouraging the conservative effects of property ownership, while also undermining the collective solidarity of her opponents, through legal restrictions on trade unions and the atomising experience of welfare reliance.

But while Thatcher created new Tories, she also lost old ones. The destruction of industrial communities and the embrace of the deregulated market had devastating effects on the petit bourgeoisie, while the centralisation of government power, and the distrust of independent experts, alienated the professions, universities and local government. While all Tory leaders that followed her would attempt to maintain this electoral coalition, weaknesses were apparent from the beginning.

Along with reconsidering well-known areas of Britain’s history, the book also covers new, or understudied, ground. John Major’s premiership is reconsidered as not merely an interim between Thatcherism and Blairism, but as the moment where the targets-obsessed administration of public services was born, which welcomed marketisation and a transactional relationship between service and citizen-customer. Such trends would only be pursued further by Tony Blair and David Cameron. Focusing on the woefully understudied period of opposition from 1997 to 2010, Burton-Cartledge also highlights how the party briefly lost its way before eventually recomposing a winning (but small) electoral coalition under David Cameron.

If all Conservative leaders since Thatcher had been defined by short-termism in defence of their class and party, then the Cameron years were likely the zenith of such trends. The economic illiteracy of austerity and punitive cruelty of ‘welfare reforms’ were dictated by the benefits of a good headline, and above all the class interest of the party over any other concerns, even that of British capitalism’s own viability. Lip-service to social liberalism was adopted but soon abandoned in favour of pandering to the party’s right, leading to the calamitous end to Cameron’s own premiership. Such practice continued under Theresa May and Boris Johnson. While May sought to address social injustice (at least in rhetoric) or ensure a more proactive state, the demands of keeping the right united and the voting coalition of older homeowners on board cast all other political or economic concerns to the sideline.

In considering the excruciating process of keeping the party together after Brexit, Burton-Cartledge even argues that the Conservative Party’s obsession with national sovereignty and ‘independence’ was as much an expression of long-held ideas about the importance of centralised state power by the party as it was about nationalistic sentiments. The authoritarianism of executive rule around law and order or immigration, the distrust of independent sites of power, and even Johnson’s attempted promulgation of parliament over Brexit, have been consistent reflections of the Conservative Party’s in-built authoritarian habits.

The picture this book creates, then, is one of a dominant party, but one built on crumbling foundations. While the last forty years of neoliberalism, the last ten of austerity, and the last five of culture war have given the impression of an all-powerful Conservative right, such success remains reliant on an ageing voter coalition that is not being replaced. The party membership remains a shadow of its former self, barely 200,000 in 2021, from a high of nearly 3 million in the 1950s, while the old sites of recruitment (most notably local government) have been erased of power and talent since the 1980s. The ‘never-ending supply of older voters’ William Hague once described may no longer be a certainty.

The party has defined itself as the ‘organ of the bourgeoisie’, but now faces the prospect of only greater proletarianisation among the working-age generations. Radicalised by the experience of austerity, tuition fees, Brexit, climate change, and Black Lives Matter, and denied the conservatising effects of home ownership, steady employment, or stable income, successive generations are now far less likely to become conservative as they get older. Even the service sector economy of ‘immaterial labour’ encouraged by Conservative governments has itself shaped a younger workforce predisposed to social liberalism, empathy, and tolerance, antithetical to voting Tory. The Conservative Party is not just facing decline, but decline of its own making.

Falling Down’s autopsy of the Conservative Party is therefore a timely one, at some points a revisionist history of Thatcherism’s hegemonic project, at others a sociological study of the Conservative member and voter 0f today. Moving beyond the narrow personality dramas or arcane procedures of the Westminster elite to consider the importance of class, demographic change, economics, and the politics of mortgages, Phil Burton-Cartledge’s book is an important contribution to the kind of militant political science the left desperately needs. Wrestling the discipline from the much-parodied ‘PolProfs’ (an elitist punditry that defends the status quo and condescends to all who challenge it) and moving it towards a more structural analysis will be invaluable to the left’s understanding of British electoral politics, and the party which dominates it – for now, at least.