Conservatism in Decline: How the Conservative Party has Betrayed its Members and Voters
Richard Cowles elaborates on how the Conservative Party has betrayed its supporters in pursuit of Blairism
Has there ever been a political party that has mastered their own downfall more than the Conservative Party? Personally, I do not think there can be any doubt that the decline in the traditionalist, conservative voice in the mainstream political discourse has been a direct result of the decline of the Conservative Party. In other words, conservatives do not have a voice – and haven’t had one for a number of years.
Of course, the Conservative Party was once a proper political force. In a recent briefing paper published by the House of Commons library, it is estimated that the Tory Party had 2.8 million members in 1953, nearly 2 million more than the Labour Party at the time. In accord with the liberalising changes of the 1960’s and 1970’s, membership was still relatively high compared to others, 400,000 in the mid-1990’s, even at the height of the party’s ongoing problems with the EU. However, it is since the early 2000’s that membership has indeed fallen. The briefing paper makes the assertion that membership of the party fell by half from 2002-2013 – 273,000 to 134,000. Current estimates put membership at around 70,000.
Why has there been a steady decline? I find it interesting that the paper refers to the year 2002. For me, 2002 was a watershed for the party – the beginning of the end. At this point, it is important to understand where the party stood in 2002. It had just come off the back of two humiliating election defeats from New Labour. Even with a young, charismatic leader in William Hague, they could not pull back the losses in 2001 which they had suffered in 1997. Tony Blair and New Labour were in charge, and the Tories were powerless to stop them. And so came the Conservative Party conference of that year. At that conference, it was decided that they needed to be more like New Labour if they were to win back Number 10. Over the course of the next few days, Theresa May called her own party “nasty”, and that they tried to make political capital out of “demonising minorities and women.” In a direct lurch to the left, she was able to transform the mind set of conservative political thought. Rather than taking on those who didn’t agree with conservative policy, she joined them. Of course, Conservative members and its voters were not “nasty,” but we know who she was talking about. Those who had middle class values for which the Conservative Party had always relied upon. It was those people, the old type of Conservative, that she alienated. Those opinions were no longer welcome in the party, and the party would no longer support them. Those middle class values were demonised and old fashioned. Instead, the party would now pursue a new type of voter – the new left intelligentsia. It wasn’t just Theresa May who supported this new direction. Oliver Letwin said the party was “weird.” Andrew Lansley, now a leading party figure, urged the leadership to change the name of the party, to the “Reform Conservatives,” as a tribute to New Labour and Tony Blair. The reformists even booed Norman Tebbit as he gave a speech. In one swoop, the Tory Party decided to remove itself from its traditional roots and try to be more like New Labour. Rather than keep its principles and sell them as an alternative to the British people, it sold itself out – an advance to centrist populism as a power grab for Number 10. The loss of membership from 2002 can only be a direct consequence of this position.
Genuine conservatives were now marginalised in the party. Despite a brave attempt by Michael Howard to reverse the party’s fortunes, with a new pursuit of power, everything changed. The logo changed. The torch of freedom was now gone – a green tree replaced it. Policies changed. No longer were the party in favour of rolling back the state – no meaningful policies were put forward to reverse the huge state machine that Blair and Brown had created. No support for the married family, no support for selection by ability in schools, no return to beat policing. Policies which those traditionalists have as their core belief, were still ignored. All we got was more Blairism – support for the folly of the Iraq war, a dreadful and disastrous campaign in Libya, a disaster (thankfully) averted for intervention in Syria. Nevertheless, of course, the main change was the leader. David Cameron himself was the main pin up for this new wave of liberal conservatism. A populist crusade to put the Tory Party into power, whatever the cost. He called himself the “heir to Blair.” The age of spin, lies and deceit was here to stay. A liberal at heart, the coalition in 2010 was perfect for Cameron. His relationship with Nick Clegg, pictures of him skiing with Husky dogs in the Artic and his social liberal attitude, showed to traditionalists that he wasn’t one of them. Membership dropped dramatically in this period.
But did it work? It could be argued that it did. The Conservatives did have their leader in Number 10. But was this really an achievement? In my opinion, not really. The 2010 general election was the most winnable election in recent history. Gordon Brown had just come off the back of a terrible financial crisis, the problems of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan were ongoing, there were huge economic problems at home, Brown had even called one of his own supporters a “bigot,” when she questioned Labour’s policy of mass immigration. Brown had proven himself to be a poor leader. The press made fun of him at every turn. Everything was primed for a Conservative win. But they didn’t. My view is that they didn’t appeal enough to those who wanted the Conservative Party to be the party for them. The three main political parties were all much of a muchness, which resulted in the low turnout. Undoubtedly, UKIP took some of the votes away from the Conservatives – indeed they only received 800,000 votes fewer than the Tories. Since then, the Conservatives’ performance in elections has not been much better. I think that it can be argued that a fall in the traditionalist voice within the party and the decline of support for the Conservatives at the polls is not just a coincidence.
However, I think it is also worth looking at performance prior to the change of direction in 2002. It is a well known fact that the way in which the party cut itself open over the issue of the EU during the mid-1990’s led to a decline in its membership. For many, expanding the state across all areas of public life is one thing, but allowing foreign state intervention to impede on British sovereignty was quite another. The EU was the Labour Party’s opposition to Thatcherism. Now it was to be embraced by the Conservative Party. In 1992, John Major supported Britain’s full ratification of the Maasctrict Treaty, a treaty which unashamingly sought to further both economic and social integration. As the catastrophe of the ERM took hold in September 1992, Major and his party took a big hit to their reputation. Here now was evidence what many traditionalists thought, that the EU was a threat to Britain’s economic stability. But still Major, Heseltine and Clarke pressed on with their support for the treaty, something which gave the newly created European Commission regulatory powers in British economic affairs and paved the way for a new single currency. It was a huge betrayal of many of its members, hence the continued falling numbers in the mid-1990’s. It paved the way for a breakaway group to form a new political party. Known as the Bruges group (as we know them now, UKIP), and it was formed as a result of hostility to the European project under the Conservative Party. As we know, the party paid a very heavy price for their indifference both between themselves and with the country at the 1997 General Election.
However, is it fair to blame the collapse of traditional conservative values on the Conservative Party alone? The progress of time will inevitably lead to changes in attitudes and perspectives on life. The Blair years of 1997-2007 undoubtedly had an impact on these attitudes. The vast expansion of the welfare state in these years, coupled with a decline in social responsibility (which started in 1980’s) meant that values had changed. Material goods and the notion that the state is there to watch over you rather than support you meant that the traditional values of small state and aspiration were lost. Whilst these principles were almost eradicated by the Blair government, I think it is fair to come to conclusion that the Conservative Party severely damaged the concept of traditional values in the mainstream. I look at many of their policies now, and I really struggle to see where the party can honestly say it is conservative. All I can see is progressive liberalism, within a party which seems to drift from one disaster to another. Political parties can have a huge influence on people. As a result, the alienation of conservative thought and moral opinion is because the Conservative Party is now irrelevant, and they have become irrelevant because they chose to be more like Tony Blair and his New Labour party. They thought that by embracing spin doctors, the Guardian, the BBC and the cultural Marxists, they could move into Number 10 and stay there. Careerist people making careerist moves. The party no longer stands on any principle. It is a problem in our political system that people vote tribally in elections. Conservatives vote for the Conservative Party through gritted teeth, in the hope that they might just revert to the party of the aspirational working class once again. But of course, they are always left disappointed. It is about time that true Conservatives realised that the Conservative Party doesn’t represent them and hasn’t done now for many years.