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The Tories in Crisis

The British Conservative Party has just met for its national convention in a state of crisis.

Recently, two large polls have shown a huge resurgence in left-wing sympathies among British voters. They reveal that support for nationalization, regulation, and increased taxation have penetrated deep into the right-of-center demographic, including among older people and previous Conservative voters. The party is already running a minority government following an unexpected mauling from young voters in this year’s general election. Many are now speaking of being on an opposition footing, which will in turn handicap Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union.

The first blow came last week when the highly respected Legatum Institute [1] released data showing three quarters of respondents approved of nationalization of key utilities. Half sought the nationalization of the banking sector, a prospect not raised since the economic crisis of the 1970s. Taxation and government spending are now prioritized over allowing voters to keep more of their earnings. Capitalism is perceived as “greedy,” “selfish,” and “corrupt,” even among Conservative voters. The report concludes that the free market in the UK has the brand personality of “an organisation in acute reputational crisis.”

As Conservatives digested these findings, they were hit by a second body blow. A poll [2] that counted 20,000 respondents found that the opposition Labour Party had a lead of up to 35 percent on questions such as which party “wants to help ordinary people,” “has its heart in the right place,” and “stands for fairness.” The Conservatives were ahead on only two positive sentiments: “tough decision-taking” and “competence.” Even on the latter—the central ballast of Conservative appeal for decades—they were only marginally ahead. The response had collapsed since the same question was asked a year ago. A negative direction is also found comparing these results with another poll [3] conducted as recently as June that found “only” 48 percent backed higher taxation.

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This is a sucker punch to a Conservative Party that’s brought unemployment down to record levels in spite of Brexit uncertainty. The public hostility was driven home when an opposition activist handed the Prime Minster a “fired” notice during her keynote convention speech on Wednesday—a far cry from the brush once handed to Mrs. Thatcher in reference to her promise to “sweep Britain clean of socialism.”

The leftward pull across British politics is being driven partly by a resurgent hard-left Labour party—but there are also deeper systemic problems at work. Chief among these is an accommodation crisis. London’s open-door policy to foreign capital—brilliantly satirized here [4]—inflated house prices hugely, putting home ownership out of reach for all but the highest-paid mortgage buyers. Since the financial crisis, jobs and wages have suffered even more, while quantitative easing has mostly helped those already with assets.

The result is that home ownership, which voters have repeatedly been told is a core Conservative principle, has become a distant prospect for the younger half of the population. In such an environment, left-wing offers of short-term living support outweigh an increasingly abstract center-right program aimed at creating asset owners. The prime minister has now promised to “get the government back into the business of housebuilding,” while making similarly expansionist commitments to state control of energy prices.

These policies mirror the ongoing, old-style revival in the Labour Party. Its Marxist leader Jeremy Corbyn uses the luxury of opposition to make hundreds of billions of unfunded spending commitments. At the Labour national convention, delegates raised their fists and sung [5] “The Red Flag.” Corbyn conducts economic “war games” to prevent capital flight in the event of his party’s victory, while airbrushing rampaging anti-Semitism  [6]and misogyny [7]. Yet he succeeds in presenting a compassionate face, claiming to represent tolerance, diversity, and the economic majority.

This confronts the governing Conservatives with an impossible situation. Although they are already responding in kind, they cannot follow Labour down the rabbit hole of unfunded commitments without undermining their own fiscal and political narrative. An example is the tuition fees that British students must pay to attend university, which Labour says it will scrap. The Conservatives have responded by raising the threshold at which students must repay these loans, a U-turn that still pales in comparison to Labour’s promise of free education for all. Yet the alternative tack—to restate core conservative principals of individual freedom and responsibility—opens them to wider accusations that they lack compassion.

Labour’s “diversity” attack presents a similar dilemma. In spite of having furnished Britain with two female prime ministers, the Conservatives are targeted as being too white and too male. Yet taking a top-down approach to diversity, as the previous administration did, both acknowledges and takes ownership of a supposed problem that can never be resolved to the satisfaction of Labour agitators. They are further hindered by both party membership and party discipline having collapsed. Labour’s revolutionary focus has resulted in a party membership of over 570,000—the largest in Europe—and Soviet-style discipline at the top. Conservative membership could be as low as 100,000, as party infighting sees Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson capitalize on his media recognition to destabilize the prime minister, especially in the key area of Brexit negotiations.

The Conservative Party is engaged in deep and effective soul-searching. There is a recognition that the corporatist drift in British politics has forgotten Adam Smith’s own definition of a free market: one in which participants both gain the benefit and pay the cost of their activities. A mendacious version of neoliberalism has too often seen costs externalized onto workers or the state—not least via massive bank bailouts—while businesses retain the proceeds. Radical conservatives are now remembering their mandate to take up arms on behalf of the individual against such incrustations of vested interest.

An appetite for renewal is mirrored in the polling data. One graph [8] reveals that, whereas voters associate their personal priorities with Labour, they still associate national priorities with the Conservatives. Key issues such as free trade, austerity, and automation evoke mixed responses. The main battleground remains their attitude towards business. Throughout the EU referendum campaign, voters were battered with “Project Fear” scaremongering by the Remain side that insisted businesses would leave with Brexit. In spite of that very real warning, most poll respondents still agreed that “Britain would be a better country if businesses made less profit.” The danger of pursuing this sentiment is too readily seen in the sharp concerns business organizations have already shown over the promised cap on energy bills.

The nightmare scenario is that Labour takes power just as the moderating influences of the EU—such as rules on antitrust and state support—are removed. Under those conditions, they would very quickly turn Britain back into “the sick man of Europe” (its nickname when Jeremy Corbyn’s intellectual forebears were in power during the 1970s). European capitals already want companies to relocate, while Eurocrats are tempted by the prospect of Britain failing as warning to other potential apostates. Labour governance could turn that nightmare scenario into reality.

The Conservatives need four pillars to fight back effectively. They need to allow for some Labour-lite policies and begin another cultural overhaul, both of which they’re already doing. They must also fill the space left by Labour’s regressive ideas vacuum with a wide-open program of political entrepreneurship. Lastly, they must paint a detailed picture of what Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain would look like. The last Project Fear didn’t come true. This one very definitely will—and people need to know.

Toby Guise is a London-based writer and novelist who specialises in political culture on both sides of the Atlantic. His other work can be found here. [9]

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "The Tories in Crisis"

#1 Comment By RVA On October 5, 2017 @ 12:46 am

“There is a recognition that the corporatist drift in British politics has forgotten Adam Smith’s own definition of a free market: one in which participants both gain the benefit and pay the cost of their activities. A mendacious version of neoliberalism has too often seen costs externalized onto workers or the state—not least via massive bank bailouts—while businesses retain the proceeds.”

Congrats, Toby, on truth-telling with Adam Smith. To further read him in ‘Wealth of Nations,’ he predicted today’s crisis, as he asserted that only the business (stock) third of the economy (the other two being land owners and laborers) had to be continually watched and mistrusted, as they continually strive to game the system to their own financial benefit. The corporatists did not ‘forget’ their obligations – they took the money and ran, as they do whenever they can.

You yourself are left with the political bill, as your party elders elected to be the paid shills in this process. The populace knows it’s been shafted, and a long-term reset in party alignment and reactive preferred policies has been triggered.

Do yourself a favor, Toby, as you do seem intelligent. Take up a trade, go abroad, move to the country, become an artist or filmmaker, write a novel, invest in yourself and your personal future. As we say in the States, your elders ‘screwed the pooch.’ No percentage for you personally in picking up the tab for them, for a generation or more. Not your problem. They didn’t consult you.

Do something fun and interesting, really! You’ll do fine.

Best & cheers!

#2 Comment By Ike Kiefer On October 5, 2017 @ 7:34 am

The UK faces a generational choice: to seek government that operates on rational principles or one that operates on emotional appeals. Politicians excel at exploiting the second approach and gaining political power at the expense of the first approach and their mandate to actually deliver sound government. It is “feel good” government that has embraced climate alarmism as their cause celebre against all other more proven and pressing concerns that should get collective attention (poverty, disease, water, militant ideologies, etc.). It is an emotionally-motivated government which has forced upon the energy industry uneconomic policies of mandating and subsidizing duplicative, unreliable, diffuse, low performance, large environmental footprint energy sources while restricting the existing and emerging generation and fuel sources that can actually serve the nation most efficiently. The irony is that the perfectly predictable increase in energy prices and energy poverty delivered by this policy is what is guiding naive young people to make their own emotional choices and advocate for more intervention by the government that harmed them.

Governments, businesses, universities, and all other human institutions, when untested by competition and insulated from real stressors, allow errant ideas to flourish within, and inevitably careen off the straight and narrow path of effectual operation into the ditches of confusions and incompetence. Nature does not long tolerate such a vacuum of fitness before a superior competitor who is better adapted to reality comes along to prey upon or destroy the dissolute and rise in their place. Often this happens in the form of war, the great auditor of institutions. It may be that the only hope for a Western civilization infantilized by three generations of peace and prosperity and slowly committing intellectual suicide is to be forced to face an external threat that genuinely threatens its existence. The UK and the USA both need a winnowing event to separate the wheat from the chaff and reset the national consciousness to a more rational and historically-informed plane.

#3 Comment By Michael Kenny On October 5, 2017 @ 10:04 am

What’s happening is that they young are swinging to the left, not just in Britain but everywhere. Psychologists have long debated how far Generation Y went. They seem to agree that it started somewhere in the mid-1980s but some thought it went on until the millennium, others said it ended in the mid-1990s. The latter seem to have won the debate. The predominant ethos of Generation Y was far right, which explains the rise of that phenomenon as they came on to the voting registers. There now seems to be a new generation whose predominant ethos is far left and their influence is supplanting the far right ethos of Generation Y as they, in their turn, become voters. That explains Corbyn’s near win in Britain, Mélenchon’s near win in France and Sanders’ remarkable performance in the US. Thus, to me, the crest of the far right wave has passed and the next decade or so will see the rise of the far left. Nothing is permanent in human existence, of course, so we’ll just have to wait and see what comes after that.

#4 Comment By grumpy realist On October 5, 2017 @ 10:54 am

Part of the impetus for re-nationalization of the energy and water sectors is that the private entities now running the business have been incredibly inefficient, chaotic, and expensive for their consumers. The Financial Times (!) did an analysis several years ago of the energy and water companies and pointed out that their continued incompetence would simply drive the push for renationalization.

#5 Comment By Sid Finster On October 5, 2017 @ 11:29 am

If by “raging anti-Semitism” the writer means “insufficiently carte blanche support for Israel” – just because I oppose Nazi Germany doesn’t make me anti-German.

#6 Comment By sherparick On October 5, 2017 @ 1:08 pm

Since January 2016, the Real Effective Exchange Rate of Sterling with dollar and Euro has fallen from $1.20 to $1.00, a quick 20% cut in income and wealth versus Europe and America. See [10]

So despite low unemployment, British have seen a further cut in their real wages, wages that have been stagnating now for two decades, and this has just made the process worse. [11]

This is the economic vise that increasingly grips most of the population and slowly unfolding disaster of BRIEXIT explains the drop in Tory popularity (although I think you exaggerate Labor’s electoral plausibility.)

I do enjoy the Tory complaints about “Eurocrats” not being fair to poor Britain by giving them everything the Tory Europhobes want in negotiations. What do any of the continental nations gain by not driving the hardest bargain possible with Britain, or letting Britain exist with no bargain at all?

The Capitalistic system as operated under the Blairite Labor Party and the Thatcher/Cameron/May Conservative Party has made some people at the top extraordinarily rich, particularly people who were able to buy London housing in the eighties and nineties or who were in banking and financial services, but it has left the majority of the population stressed and left the country in a shoddy, impoverished state, even compared to the 1970s, the so called “Sick Man of Europe” times. For impressionistic account, see Bill Bryson’s “The Road to Little Dribbling.” Hence, the gradual popular revulsion to the whole experiment.

#7 Comment By grumpy realist On October 5, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

Sherparick–to give you an idea of the craziness, I moved from Tokyo to London back in early 2000s and discovered I had to pay TWICE for rent in London what I had been paying in Tokyo.

Crazy. Crazy. Crazy!

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 5, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

“Capitalism is perceived as “greedy,” “selfish,” and “corrupt,” even among Conservative voters.”

Because so many conservatives have embraced mercantilism as capitalism — they have favored unfair practices and gone so far as to protect them —

and that is the same mistake here in the US.

#9 Comment By Thaomas On October 5, 2017 @ 3:49 pm

Tories need to focus on making Brexit look as much like Stay as they possibly can. If they lose the next election, at least they will have something coherent to oppose Labour on in the subsequent one.

#10 Comment By LT On October 5, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

“…putting home ownership out of reach for all but the highest-paid mortgage buyers…”

So rare that the distinction is made between a mortgage buyer and a homeowner.
I smiled.
Wish articles about housing phrased it that way more often.

#11 Comment By James from Durham On October 6, 2017 @ 7:52 am

Ike you’re right but….

the party that depends on getting an emotional response is the Conservative party. The party that wants to promote realistic solutions to real people’s problems like housing and healthcare and being able to financially support your family is the Labour party.

By the way, as a middle aged person, I can assure you that the young do not have a monopoly on naivety. Quite the reverse. The old with their indexlinked pensions, property etc generally show a staggering unawareness of the real world.

#12 Comment By KD On October 6, 2017 @ 9:40 am

I am afraid that the Conservative Party seems to be a historical relic at this point, something like a psychical research institute, where people assume if they gather round and recite the same slogans they recited in 1985, the Spectre of Thatcher will rise again from the grave, restore order, and make the world safe for greengrocers.

#13 Comment By lancelot lamar On October 6, 2017 @ 6:46 pm

The Tory party, as Peter Hitchens never tires of telling us, is just an empty shell designed to gather campaign contributions. It stands for nothing.

The Corbyn Labor party does. It stands for many of the wrong things, but it does have a beating heart. The only hope for the tories would be for them to actually become a conservative party and stand for those principles. Not much chance of that, however.

#14 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On October 6, 2017 @ 8:52 pm

Even during the days of that ‘British Empire’ the British government was a bully and full of you know what,
So much misery thanks to them and, It seems that they could have done better in preventing WW1, which led to WW2 and all that hurt.
They would send their troops all over the world and just let them die as they killed others.
If it wasn’t for many civilized people from the so-called UK and the good, such as The Beatles and Jeff Lynne (ELO)…well, that’s in their favor…who has respect for British foreign policy with war mongers like Boris Johnson the clown and P.M. May, another Thatcher with no conscience.

Dig what I’m saying
cause the truth is there despite all tv ‘news’media in America and London that’s always lyin’

#15 Comment By Sherpa On October 7, 2017 @ 3:51 am

Interesting article, which does well to house on the wave stagnation and housing crisis that are driving a lot of Labour support. Another factor might be that capitalism in Britain has often degenerated into oligopoly in many sectors, particularly ones where companies take over former state services. British voters who experienced our railways, hospital carparks etc know that public-private partnerships are frequently stitch ups by the same few corporations, who prosper at taxpayer expense and by cutting down services.

Capitalism in Britain has gone through a series of consolidations that too often have created institutions that are too big to fail. One looks at supermarket chain Tesco, where a huge scandal over book cooking to strengthen share prices erupted in 2014, despite it being a perfectly profitable business. Meanwhile the crimes of HSBC could fill a book. Too often the response from regulators has been a slap on the wrist or worse, “socialism for the rich” and austerity measures for everyone else to pay for it.

Articles like this give some idea of the turn in Britain towards the hard left: [12]

[13]

#16 Comment By Dave skerry On October 7, 2017 @ 10:33 am

To Sid Finster: great line, great truth. Mind if I plagerize (sp.) it?

#17 Comment By BillWAF On October 7, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

As usual, whenever someone points out Israeli bad behavior or has the nerve to claim tha t Palestinians are people, he or she can expect to be called “anti-Semitic.”

It is disappointing that a writer for TAC repeated the lie about “rampaging anti-Semitism” in the Labour Party. Years ago, during the early years of the W administration, two factors attracted me to TAC: First, its willingness to oppose the invasion of and war in Iraq; and second, its truth telling regarding Israel’s conduct.

The openness of TAC for other viewpoints is commendable. I would not ask its editors to censor Mr. Guise. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the magazine’s correspondent repeats the usual garbage.