The approach that delivered electoral success for the UK’s Tories over the last decade is starting to run out of road. But for now, the Conservatives are lucky to have an ineffectual Labour opposition that’s afraid to criticize their pandemic response.
Adapted from Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain by Phil Burton-Cartledge (Verso Books, September 2021)
When Britain departed the European Union (EU) at the end of January 2020, it did so with the Tories at the peak of their powers. Not only had they won convincingly in 2019, but this was also the culmination of rising support for their party since 2001.
To talk about the problems the Tories have, and to argue that the party is facing long-term decline, might seem premature, if not downright delusional. But there are powerful social forces working against the Conservatives.
Sawing Off the Branch
The Margaret Thatcher and John Major governments were corrosive of their own political dominance. Thatcher’s successful assault on the labor movement left the door open to rolling back the social wage. The preeminence of the executive, with its crude but ruthless attacks on independent points of authority within the state system, and the accelerated closure of swaths of the country’s industrial base, alienated natural supporters in the professions and among the petty bourgeoisie who made a living from the working-class communities the Tories destroyed.
Compensating for the liquidation and estrangement of these constituencies was the government’s hope that new loyal Tory voters could be generated. These efforts revolved around selling off council homes and opening the housing market, while allowing a limited popular capitalism in the public share–issue of newly privatized utilities. This was enough to keep the Tories in power until 1997.
After thirteen years of recovery, the Tories returned to office in 2010 and David Cameron set about fashioning a program explicitly aimed at keeping this (now aging) cohort of property owners wedded to the party. The following five years were a period in which a layer of this support was radicalized by the nostalgic certainties proffered by Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The Tories chose to pander to them by doubling down on social security attacks and scapegoating, while conceding a referendum on European Union membership.
As is well known, the result of the referendum yielded a stark age polarization. For younger workers, their vote to Remain was a vote for stability and certainty. For older workers and the retired, Brexit offered a promise of escape from an uncertain world, aggravated by the ontological angst of their social location and asset holding, via a projected assertion of national vigor.
Subsequently, both Theresa May and Boris Johnson divined that their paths to election victory meant fundamentally reorienting the party around these voters. Gone were the homilies to modernization and reaching out. It was a risky strategy, especially when May’s gamble failed in 2017. But repeating the trick the second time around in 2019, Johnson was faced with a divided field of opponents and succeeded.
Yet the pattern of the Tory vote, the concentration of its support among older voters, and its continued cultivation of this base prevents the Conservatives from convincingly intersecting with the bulk of the working-age population and presents them with an inescapable difficulty. People are not acquiring property at anything like the rates they were in the 1980s and ’90s, and therefore the link between aging and asset ownership is becoming more attenuated.
This means that the electoral basis for their 2019 triumph will, with time, grow increasingly difficult to repeat. Unless the Tories do something by the end of the 2020s, the prospects for forming a majority government thereafter get more fanciful. Demography, however, is not destiny. A trend is not the same as hard determinism.
Thinking through the Tories’ possible futures, the successful resolution of the Brexit crisis — from their point of view — throws up a difficulty. Given the character of their coalition, the nationalism running through the Leave campaign, and the ugly conflation of exiting the European Union with anti-immigration and racist politics, postwar nostalgia, and attempts to escape a world that is unfamiliar and unnerving, the question at the forefront of Tory strategy is what can replace it.
With all the other Westminster parties besides the Scottish National Party (SNP) accepting Brexit, it might seem that this well has dried up. For example, since taking over as leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer has rapidly buried the part he played in convincing Labour to adopt a second-referendum policy. In late December 2020, he instructed Labour MPs to endorse the prime minister’s EU trade deal.
It seems there are two substitutes the Tories can use to keep their people on side. They can simply carry on waving the flag while trumpeting Brexit’s success. Despite stories of the multiplication of red tape and added fees and delays on exporting into the EU’s economic area, unsurprisingly, the Tory press has crowed about the EU’s difficulties sourcing the COVID-19 vaccine and its humiliating retreat from a dispute with drug firm AstraZeneca.
This, trumpeted Johnson’s client media, was proof that Brexit was correct and that leaving the EU has literally saved lives. The same outlets had comparatively little to say about 126,000 COVID deaths in the UK and one of the worst death rates in the world.
Stoking English or British nationalism might have further electoral uses, too. Thanks to surging polling figures in favor of Scottish independence and the SNP’s pledge to hold a further referendum, there is a rich seam of resentment in England that the Tories are well-placed to mine.
In 2015, with some skill, the Tory campaign was able to present Labour’s Ed Miliband as being in de facto alliance with the SNP, claiming that the price of a minority government supported by Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond would be the breakup of the UK and the scrapping of the Trident nuclear program. The fact that Theresa May tried the same trick in 2017 and failed to make as much of an impression does not mean that the Tories will not try it again.
Casting Labour as somehow weak on the union — forgetting how the party blew up its Scottish vote and parliamentary representation in its defense — dovetails nicely with Jeremy Corbyn-era attacks on Labour’s lack of patriotism and “softness” on terrorism and threats posed by foreign powers. This offers the possibility of cohering a polarizing dynamic ahead of the next election against Scottish nationalism and assorted other anti-England demons.
Then there is the predominance of social liberalism that the Tories can use (and are using) as a wedge issue. The so-called “War on Woke” amounts to preserving as much of the prevailing political culture as possible so that scapegoating drives and Little England appeals, which have proven indispensable to the Tories over the years, retain their efficacy. Yet as a long-term investment, it is destined to repay diminishing returns.
For one thing, getting right-wing journalists excited about exaggerated goings-on on university campuses does not have the same weight or resonance as Brexit, which cut to the quick of national identity. For another, social liberalism and anti-Toryism do not persist in a rarefied realm of ideas cut off from the everyday. Both are rooted in class or, more precisely, the experience of class cohorts: the brute realities of work and living at the sharp end of sectional policymaking are constituting the outlook of the rising generation.
Then there is the option of fiddling with the electoral system. This has been a stated objective of Tory governments since David Cameron’s election and remains a key goal of Boris Johnson’s. At the time of this writing, the Boundary Commission for England is redrawing the political map of the UK to “equalize” the population size of constituencies and dilute marginal and Labour-held seats, further enhancing the Tory advantage of the party’s more efficiently spread voter base.
Other measures, such as compulsory identification checks, ostensibly to cut down on the microscopic instances of voter fraud, are also in play to suppress Labour votes. Gerrymandering the system to their advantage is a Tory confession that they are ill-equipped to face the politics of their long-term decline, and it is entirely true to the custom and practice of the party. It is a short-term fix that puts off the inevitable pain but does not prevent it.
The problem with these strategies is their time-limited efficacy. This might not matter to Boris Johnson and many leading Tories in 2021, as the consequences of long-term decline are not about to immediately pressure their electoral performance. They can afford to kick the can down the road. It will be for future Tory leaders to deal with.
Finding New Voters
The question is how the Tories can escape the situation they have contrived for themselves. With the conservatizing effects of age breaking down and Tory support destined not to replace itself like-for-like, the Conservatives must find new ways of winning over the rising generation of voters. Not a simple task.
There are three overlapping possibilities. The first is simply doing nothing. As the members of the postwar generation pass away over the next few decades, their property will be inherited by their children in the Generation X and millennial cohorts. Now with assets at their disposal, a certain conservatization could set in, albeit at a later stage of their adult lives than was the case with their parents and grandparents.
Waiting is risky, because this might not translate into support for the Tories from this cohort, given their collective memory of Conservative governments during their formative years and the ways that opposition parties might respond. The New Labour years showed that the Labour Party can intersect with and appeal to propertied layers by pandering to their peccadilloes and shielding them from the chill winds of globalization. It might do the same again.
Another possibility is jump-starting the acquisition of property and getting millions more younger workers onto the housing ladder. In the 2010s, the Tories oversaw a complex array of part-rent–part-mortgage vehicles, help-to-buy initiatives with government loans, and the extension of the right to buy to some housing association properties — none of which have made a dent in the housing market. Resistance abides in government to the building of council housing in sufficient quantities to meet demand, and the Tories have allowed developers to shirk requirements to provide social housing quotas in large developments.
All the while, planning laws have been watered down, as if the problem is recalcitrant local-authority opposition to more housing, rather than developers land banking or limiting construction to benefit from asset-price inflation. If the Tories were to reverse course and mandate a national housebuilding effort, property acquisition could be opened up with all the political consequences this entails.
The Tories have not done so because more houses would increase supply, threaten prices, and create alternatives to the private rental market. In other words, it would go against the interests of their existing coalition of voters — particularly the caste of petty landlords that their policies have done so much to encourage over the last forty years.
The final strategy would entail a thoroughgoing detoxification and reckoning of the party with itself. The Cameron years tried to move with the rising social liberal consensus, but it quickly became apparent that this was merely window dressing, once his government had deepened the neoliberal settlement further. Passing equal marriage legislation while marketizing public services and pushing people on social security into destitution does not make for a progressive government of any stripe. Instead, it was just another Tory administration with slick public relations.
If, however, the Tories were to become more consistently socially liberal and actively dump their attachments to scapegoating, callousness, authoritarianism, and opposition to equality — in conjunction with significant about-faces on policy — a reinvented Tory Party might also become a rejuvenated Tory Party. With one caveat: such a transformation is utterly fanciful and can only exist as a thought experiment.
If the Tories were to model themselves on the plodding managerialism of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats while being consistently socially liberal, they would not be the Conservative Party. Indeed, such a transformation would demand driving out most Tory MPs, the party’s cadre of councilors, and most of the membership.
Forecasting the future can only be an assessment of probabilities. Social relations, after all, are not mechanisms grinding out predetermined outcomes. As we survey the political landscape that the Conservatives have shaped to their advantage, it is worth tempering an apprehension of their difficulties with a lesson that British political history has taught us for two centuries. No one ever got rich betting against the Tories.
At the start of 2020, Boris Johnson tweeted: “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain.” A little over twelve months later, affecting a somber tone, Johnson offered his apologies for every life lost to COVID-19 and took “full responsibility” as the official death toll passed 100,000. The story of how the Tories have mismanaged the pandemic and visited a catastrophe on the UK is deserving of several books, and, one would think, constitutes a stigma it would take the party a generation to wash away.
But despite the scale of the disaster, the Tories have proven themselves very adept at managing the political fallout of the crisis. Survey work undertaken in January 2021 by YouGov found the public more likely to blame the rest of the public (58 percent) for the surge in infections in December and early January than the government (28 percent). Unsurprisingly, there are clear age profiles to the answers, with a plurality blaming the Tories found only among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds.
Amid tragedy, it has been an unqualified political success story for the Conservatives. How have they managed to escape so much pain? People have rallied around the government as the only means to defeat the viral assailant, particularly after the initial outbreak. Despite three lockdowns and numerous public health failures, this still accounts for some of the Tory support.
In the absence of anything else, analysis of Tory policy must concede the success they have had in handling the necropolitics of the virus. This unpleasant-sounding concept was explored in depth by Achille Mbembe. Among other things, it refers to a state’s management of the politics of death: who should die and who should be exposed to the risk of dying.
As a concept addressed to matters of war, conflict, and the deployment of state violence, necropolitics also lends itself well to the management of mass-casualty disasters and pandemics. As far as the Tories were concerned, their approach to this inescapable fact of governance was entirely consistent with Thatcherite logics: individualize the problem, overrule or ignore expert advice, and depoliticize the government’s strategy as much as possible.
Theory and Practice
The initial strategy document issued when global COVID deaths stood at 3,000 and the UK had just fifty confirmed cases reveals these logics. For example, section 4.8 states that new health legislation confers powers on “medical professionals, public health professionals and the police to allow them to detain and direct individuals in quarantined areas at risk or suspected of having the virus.”
The document goes on to direct the separation of COVID patients from the general hospital population and, particularly, accident and emergency departments. Taken with other public health rules, these appear to be neutral and sensible precautions for mitigating infection.
Later, the document addresses the powers of the authorities. Section 4.39 reads: “There are also well practised arrangements for Defence to provide support to Civil Authorities if requested” — in other words, to use the military when it is deemed necessary. Section 4.45 raises the possibility of “population-distancing strategies,” meaning the closure of schools and other public institutions, encourage working from home, and preventing large gatherings from taking place.
The Tories proved slow to follow their own advice. Football matches went ahead, Cheltenham horse races happened, and, incredibly, hospitals sent elderly patients back to their care homes, precipitating a huge wave of infections that tore through the system. Peculiarly, this catastrophic blunder has attracted little attention from the growing army of conspiracy theorists, let alone the cadres of the bourgeois press.
From the outset, government messaging firmly stressed individual responsibility for abiding by the rules. “Stay at home, control the virus, save lives” was simple and easily understood. When Johnson’s mercurial adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke lockdown rules in a trip to County Durham’s Barnard Castle, the outcry, far from damaging the government, affirmed individual responsibility for sticking to the rules.
With the backing, as ever, of Tory institutional weight in the media, Boris Johnson was barely troubled by multiple scandals around personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement, the provision of laptop computers and tablets to schoolchildren, and the visible failure of the outsourced test-and-trace program. Instead, the press seized on illegal parties or people going to the beach.
From this perspective, death in the age of coronavirus has nothing to do with government failures. It’s an individual tragedy, a stroke of the most atrocious bad luck. The Tories have accomplished self-erasure and presented 126,000 deaths as 126,000 unavoidable tragedies.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer has proved to be a seemingly unlikely ally in the Tory management of COVID necropolitics. While carefully worded and supportive criticisms might have been appropriate in the period immediately following his election as leader of the Labour Party, overall, he has done very little to contest Johnson’s framing of the pandemic.
Starmer has focused his criticisms on competency issues and has occasionally scored “wins” by calling for lockdowns and tougher action before the spread of the disease forced the government’s hand. This approach is quite deliberate, and Starmer has obviously calculated that a wider political critique is too risky. The result is that Johnson has not been held to account for the death toll, nor for the unerring coincidence of government contracts getting handed to firms with Tory links.
Nowhere was this clearer than when it came to school reopenings. In summer 2020, in the manner of an annoyed headmaster braced for disappointment, Starmer said he “expected” schools to be open for the new term in September. When teachers’ unions were concerned about opening schools after the Christmas break with the more infectious and deadly “Kent variant” in circulation, Starmer refused to back their campaign despite majority public support for the teachers.
One (unnamed) Labour leader summed up their perceived bind as they reflected on their focus groups: “The more we attack the government, the more people don’t like it. . . . When we criticize the government, people often respond, ‘You lot wouldn’t have done any better.’”
So far, the Tories are winning the necropolitics. They are setting the agenda and framing the issues while the Labour opposition refuses to contest their terms. This bodes well for the Conservatives in their attempts to determine the course of British politics after coronavirus. The hope that an independent inquiry after the conclusion of the pandemic is going to shift the Tory voter coalition away from the party, when the deaths of 126,000 of their fellow citizens have not done so already, is a forlorn one.
The unavoidable conclusion, despite the prospect of a declining voter coalition and other strategic issues gnawing at the Tories, is that once again, they are proving lucky in their opposition. Barring an event that can fundamentally shift the country and quickly dissolve the roots of their support in the country’s political economy, a fifth election victory is within the Conservative Party’s reach.
This post was originally published on Jacobin.