|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Will the Tories survive?
A year after Michael Howard’s succession as leader the immediate electoral prospects for the Tory Party appear as gloomy as ever. A recent survey of marginal constituencies suggests they are heading for meltdown, predicting their worst electoral showing since 1906. The defection to New Labour of former education minister, Robert Jackson MP, added to Howard’s woes, exposing the deep malaise in a party lacking a defined identity or role in British politics. JIM HORTON writes.
ALTHOUGH THE PRECISE outcome is uncertain, very few people would wager on Michael Howard becoming the next prime minister. Barring only dramatic economic or political shocks, the Tories appear to have no chance of forming the next government. Even a public-sector strike on pensions before the election, while damaging for Tony Blair, would not favour the Tories.
The prospect of another electoral drubbing for the Tories in the coming months does not indicate mass satisfaction with the government, however. In fact, never before have all the major political parties in Britain enjoyed so little political authority. But in terms of impact on the political landscape the spectacular degeneration of the British Conservative Party, once the most successful capitalist party in Europe, ranks second only to the transformation of the Labour Party into the consummate representative of the British ruling class. Both these developments are rooted in the political aftershocks of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. But while the changed character of New Labour has been self-evident, with its vicious implementation of neo-liberal policies, the just as profound implications for the Tory Party have until recently received less attention.
A year ago, Howard presented himself as the saviour of the Tories, generating some enthusiasm, if only amongst sections of the party’s frustrated membership. Howard attempted to persuade voters that he and the Tory Party had ditched their Thatcherite legacy. The talk was of compassionate conservatism but he maintained support for the neo-liberal policies of privatisation and attacks on public services, the programme currently being implemented by New Labour.
In the ensuing twelve months, Howard has failed miserably to capitalise on Blair’s problems. Improved poll ratings in the period immediately following Howard’s coronation appear now as a distant hopeful blip, with much of the Tory membership now mired in the mindset of perpetual opposition.
Disaffection towards New Labour is deep-rooted: recent polls show support for the Iraq war has dropped to its lowest level with just one in three believing the war was justified, and anger is widespread over the government’s social policies. In 2004, Blair had to weather opposition to university top-up fees, face down the Butler report’s criticisms of his Iraq war policy, and reluctantly accept the resignation of David Blunkett, a staunch Blairite ally, from government.
And just days into the new year, the bitter feud between Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown resurfaced, with competing press conferences and the publication of yet another book detailing their deteriorating relationship. The latest revelations claim that Brown regards Blair as totally untrustworthy because he reneged on an alleged agreement to step-down in Brown’s favour.
None of this has benefited Howard. In terms of contender to be the next prime minister, Howard is in third place behind both Brown and the deeply untrustworthy Blair. An Independent/NOP poll, conducted when the Blair-Brown tensions dominated the news, showed that only 18% of the electorate would vote for the Tories, compared with 23% for New Labour under Blair and 31% for New Labour under Brown. If the don’t-knows are excluded, the Tories, averaging 30%, are still nine points behind New Labour, and pretty much stuck where they were under Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague, both of whom were regarded as disastrous leaders. It is now more than ten years since the Tories reached the 40% threshold that is required to win general elections. Howard’s intention to campaign on a ‘vote Blair, get Brown slogan’ has been scuppered by these poll findings.
The Tories’ incapacity to mount a serious challenge to New Labour is a result of more than ineptitude, however. They face real difficulties. At the beginning of January, the Tories began to serialise their manifesto, under the banal title ‘The Forgotten Majority’. Howard is not referring to the millions of low-paid workers alienated by Blair’s capitalist polices, but the Conservative’s traditional social base, sections of the middle class and professional workers referred to as ‘Middle England’, who transferred to New Labour in 1997. Since then Blair’s big-business polices have resulted in increased wealth inequality and desperate poverty for millions. But relatively low unemployment, an economy currently escaping the difficulties of its EU partners, historically high house prices and the availability of cheap credit have, for some, created a feeling of relative well-being. Those who have most suffered the brutal consequences of New Labour’s policies, such as the low-paid and benefits claimants, feel totally disenfranchised from all the establishment parties. Labour’s new social base also feels disenchanted on such issues as the Iraq war and the state of health and education but, having concluded that things could be worse under Howard, is not returning to the Tories. New Labour is not popular, but its election slogan, ‘Britain’s working, don’t let the Tories wreck it again’, will chime with millions who have still not forgiven the Tories for the past crimes of Thatcherism.
Whose Tory values?
SINCE BECOMING LEADER, Howard has faced a painful balancing act of trying to hold onto his core voters, who support the more reactionary ideas of the Tory right on Europe and asylum, while aiming to ‘reach out to the forgotten majority’, the disaffected Middle England. Many of the former voted for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the Euro-elections, while the latter now look to the Liberal Democrats or will vote Labour rather than risk the Tories regaining power.
Every time the Tories make announcements designed to placate their core vote they alienate broader layers of the electorate, whereas attempts to occupy the centre ground make them sound no different from New Labour, or even the Liberal Democrats, on a range of issues.
Howard has desperately scratched around for a theme that will differentiate his party from New Labour. The Tories’ central dilemma is that New Labour has stolen virtually all their political wardrobe leaving them naked, with no clearly defined political or ideological alternative. The comment by Howard that millions of people feel let down by Blair will gain an echo, but not his claim that the ‘forgotten majority’ shares Tory values. Whose Tory values? Traditional Thatcherism, rejected by millions, or New Labour’s repackaged Toryism? The latter, aside from the current relative economic stability that has sustained a certain base for New Labour, has alienated millions with its pro-big business social policies.
Confronted with the real difficulty of putting clear blue water between themselves and New Labour, the Tories end up trying to out-Tory the Tory policies of the government. In typical populist fashion, Howard promises that a Tory government will get a grip on crime, immigration and disorder and give power back to the people, ideas also promoted by New Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Notwithstanding his criticisms of the detention of British nationals at Guantanamo Bay, Howard claims the proliferation of human rights is responsible for rising crime and disorder, rather than a capitalist society based on gross inequality. But Blair is already ahead of the Tories with unprecedented attacks on civil liberties, leaving Howard to compel Tory MPs to support New Labour’s reactionary introduction of ID cards.
All three main parties are looking to slash public spending, the only differences are by how much and whether tax cuts are possible. But even on tax the divide is not ideological. The actual policies pursued by both parties will depend on the vagaries of the economy. With no prospect of having to implement his policies, Howard has now unashamedly targeted the middle classes and professional workers for tax cuts, although the details have yet to be announced.
Hit hard by rising housing costs and council tax bills, some polls suggest a majority of the middle layers believes sufficient funds have gone into public services and therefore support tax cuts. But polls also show that swing voters would not support tax cuts at the expense of less spending on public services.
Howard claims the choice is between ‘waste more, tax more’ Labour, and his party’s ‘efficiency and less tax’. Brown has already announced ‘efficiency savings’ in public spending of £21 billion with the loss of over 100,000 civil service jobs. Not wanting to be outdone, Howard has pledged cuts of £35 billion with job losses of 235,000, claiming ‘savings’ will be used to fill the government’s financial black hole, cut taxes and improve services. But given worsening government finances, whichever party wins the election will have to further cut public spending, including frontline services, and/or increase taxes.
The UKIP threat
UPPERMOST IN HOWARD’S mind in the next few months will be how badly the Tories do in the general election, and whether UKIP can repeat its European election success. The once traditional party of British capitalism appears to face an existence of indefinite purgatorial opposition with the prospect of an electoral pincer by the Liberal Democrats (a majority of their target seats are Tory held) and UKIP.
The political landscape has changed over the last few years with fragmenting support for all the establishment parties but, as yet, there is no authoritative working-class alternative to fill the vacuum. This is a European-wide trend. The main beneficiary of this in last year’s European elections was UKIP which saw a phenomenal increase in its support largely at the expense of the Tory Party. (See Socialism Today No.85, July 2004)
The success of UKIP stunned the Tories and marked a turning point in the short-lived confidence of its membership. The subsequent parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool appeared to confirm the Tories’ worst nightmares as UKIP pushed them into fourth place. Panic set in. Shadow Home Secretary, David Davies, issued dire warnings that UKIP could cost the Tories 30-50 seats in the general election. Howard began to harden his public utterances on Europe, promising an early referendum on the constitution, to renegotiate treaties, and repatriate power from Brussels. Euro-sceptic John Redwood was brought into the shadow cabinet.
UKIP was never going to replace the Tories at this stage, but Tory grandees feared that UKIP could snatch enough votes to not only scupper their faint chance of victory but even lose Tory seats, including Howard’s Folkestone seat. There was a momentary sigh of relief as Robert Kilroy-Silk, who had assumed the aura if not the mantel of leadership, sought reward for catapulting UKIP to centre stage by challenging Roger Knapman for control of the party after only a few months membership.
Knapman, a former Tory MP, has seen off the challenge. Kilroy-Silk has resigned from UKIP, denounced its European parliamentary as ‘barmy’, and is now an independent MEP. Portraying himself as a moderate, notwithstanding being sacked from the BBC for branding Arabs ‘limb amputators’, he criticised the group’s decision to join the same political grouping in the European parliament as the League of Polish Families, which has been described as anti-Semitic and racist. Such Internal spats put a question mark over whether UKIP will be able to repeat its Euro success in the general election, though they were always unlikely to win any seats given that Europe will not be the most prominent issue.
While the threat from UKIP appears to have receded for now – although UKIP’s vote could still cause some upsets for the Tories in targeted areas where UKIP is strong – the once traditional party of British capitalism faces more intractable problems. In tackling the monumental challenge of trying to dislodge New Labour from government, Howard has been confronted with difficulties which raise broader issues beyond the immediate electoral prospects of the Conservatives.
Realignment on the right?
UNDERLYING THE TORIES’ endemic malaise is the more fundamental question over the future survival of the Conservative Party in its present form. It has been calculated that given the average age of its members, the party will die a natural death within 20 years. But even that scenario could prove too optimistic.
Comparisons with the Labour Party of the 1980s are false. After years of conflict, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Blair successfully converted Labour from a bourgeois workers’ party into an openly capitalist party, pushing the Tories aside in the process. The room in Britain for three centre-ground capitalist parties – New Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories – has since become squeezed. The Tory Party is not going to change its class character and move to the left, leaving it with few options.
Meanwhile, polls showing that one in five people would support a credible party which stood for British withdrawal from the EU and the imposition of more extensive anti-immigrant policies, along with the success of UKIP in the European elections, raise the perspective for the development of some form of English nationalist party based on a right-wing populist programme.
The role that UKIP, or sections of it, could play in a new right-wing formation is open to speculation. UKIP claims to have 31,000 members which would make it the fourth largest party in Britain. Writing in the Observer (30 May, 2004), Gaby Hinsliff described UKIP as "little more than the BNP in blazers". Programmatically, there is not much to choose between them, but the more genteel image of UKIP is acceptable to sections of the bosses who would not associate with the more thuggish British National Party, eclipsed by the success of UKIP.
In the European election, UKIP leaflets, under the headline ‘Immigration soaring’, incredulously described itself as a "non-racist party that takes a firm line on immigration". UKIP’s European election manifesto proclaimed five essential ‘rights’, including freedom from Brussels, freedom from crime and freedom from ‘overcrowding’, blaming immigrants for increasing social tensions.
Underlying UKIP’s leadership squabbles has been an ongoing internal debate on the more fundamental question of whether it should maintain its character as a pressure group appealing to Euro-sceptics, which is Knapman’s position, or develop, as Kilroy-Silk wanted, into a ‘respectable’, right-wing political party to replace the Tories, with a wide-ranging programme pandering to nationalism and racism. That was the rationale behind Kilroy-Silk’s drive to persuade UKIP’s conference, against the leadership, to stand in virtually every constituency in the general election, including those of Tory Euro-sceptics.
For UKIP’s big-business backers, like Paul Sykes, a former Tory supporter and long-standing Euro-sceptic, Kilroy-Silk’s stated intention to "kill off the Tory Party" was a step too far and he withdrew his £1.4 million donation. There has been speculation he will once again fund the Tories, given a recent hardening of their position on Europe in response to the UKIP threat.
UKIP’s future direction will influence developments in the Tory Party. The big question facing Conservatives is where does their party fit into the current political landscape? Should it continue to do battle with New Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the so-called centre ground? Or should it, taking account of UKIP’s successes, carve out a position on the populist right? It is unlikely that many Tories would take the neo-conservative route of the US Republican Party, the social base for which does not currently exist in Britain. But many Tory Party members are closer to UKIP’s position on total withdrawal from Europe than Howard’s Euro-sceptic stay-in approach although, at this stage, dubious about the long-term prospects for UKIP.
This side of a general election, no one in the Tory Party will provoke a split. Acknowledging the Tories’ bleak election prospects, Howard told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme that he would stay on as leader in the event of defeat. To say otherwise would weaken his already poor ratings.
But after almost certain defeat in the Westminster poll, and following eight years in opposition during which time the Tories have failed to define themselves, suppressed divisions will resurface. There could be a rapid adjustment to the changed political landscape of the last decade. Seeing no space on the centre ground, significant numbers of Tory traditionalists, who opposed the attempts of modernisers to ditch Thatcherism but felt the tide against them, could seek to shift the party decisively in a right-wing populist direction or split to form a new party, perhaps with sections of UKIP.
Of course, the Tory ‘modernisers’, who will say or do almost anything to get into power, could seek to resist such a development in the hope that New Labour loses the allegiance of Middle England, providing space for a new ‘moderate’ Tory Party. But, some conclude, the defection of Jackson to New Labour shows that the battle is already lost. A rout in the election could accelerate this process. Even if the Tories survive as a party it will be very difficult, although not ruled out, for them to reclaim their position as the dominant party of British capitalism.
At this stage, a majority of the British ruling class now prefers Blair’s more efficient delivery of New Labour’s re-branded Thatcherism, which has generated huge profits for big business without so far provoking class conflict on a mass scale. They oppose the position of the Tory rightwing and UKIP on Europe and, for current economic reasons, reject further tightening of immigration controls, but would not like to see the break-up of the Conservative Party, which has now become the bosses’ second eleven. Nonetheless, big class battles in the future could see significant sections of the bourgeoisie encouraging the establishment of a right-wing populist, English nationalist party.
The greater potential, however, is for a mass party of the working class, which could counter the lies that asylum seekers are responsible for deteriorating public services, and also pose a European-wide socialist alternative to the current remote and corrupt EU bosses’ club. But if the trade unions fail to take the initiative, the potential base for a left radical programme could be dissipated, leading to increased support for the simplistic answers of right-wing populism, in whatever form it takes.
The period following the general election will be one of increasing political flux. World events, including the prospect of an international economic downturn and continuing problems in the Middle East, will impact on developments in Britain. There will continue to be an erosion of New Labour’s base as workers move into action against the government, particularly on pensions and attacks on public services. The trade unions will need to respond with industrial action, but the question of independent political representation for working people will also be starkly posed.