There’s bad news for the Tories, and it’s not just that Boris Johnson is toast. The issue is that there is no easy way out for them from their present crisis. This reflects a much broader loss of a solid political base. In the sort of democracy that has existed in Britain for the last century, the Conservatives have always had a major challenge. They are a party that objectively stands for the interests of big business and a tiny minority of the population.
But they have to persuade around 40 percent of voters—and that means lots of workers—to back them so they can win elections. John Eldon Gorst, the Conservative MP for Chatham, summed up the challenge 150 years ago. “If the Tory party is to continue to exist as a power in the state, it must become a popular party. The days are past when an exclusive class, however great its ability, wealth, and energy, can command a majority in the electorate,” he said
With many U-turns and occasional civil war, the Tories have proved very good at this. Between 1916 and 1997 the Conservative Party was in office for 61 out of 81 years—or 75 percent of the time—and they have led since 2010. This has required somersaults. In 2010 they formed an alliance in government with the fanatically pro-EU Liberal Democrats. In 2019 they absorbed the votes, and many of the policies, of the fanatically anti-EU and racist Ukip.
The Tories have been successful partly by benefiting from periods of capitalist upswing and imperial expansion. This was allied with conceding to workers’ movements in order to tame them, and dividing opponents with nationalism, warmongering and racism. The 2019 election was a perfect example. Johnson ruthlessly pushed aside prime minister Theresa May and pro-EU Tories and staked everything on mobilising millions around “get Brexit done”. His gamble involved the seemingly un-Tory programme of attacking judges and multinationals as representatives of an undemocratic elite.
Johnson’s “fuck business” outburst during Brexit negotiations was symbolic of his readiness to ditch lumps of Tory ideology in order to batter his way into Downing Street. The foundational principle is to win. But Johnson’s 2019 coalition was fragile. It included much big business and sections of workers who were rightly enraged at the way other parties trampled on their anti-EU votes. Today workers’ identification with Johnson is increasingly frayed. He lied about the lockdown parties and abandons people to the social emergency of soaring prices.
To keep workers on board he has to offer more public spending. Bosses and bankers want less. Action, however limited, over the cost of living required the government to introduce a windfall tax on some profits. That enraged some of its MPs who now talk about a Conservative “identity crisis”. The need to change to survive is not new. The party’s roots in the nineteenth century were originally in the rural super-rich—landowners and big farmers. It had to adapt to the rise of an industrial society and a working class that potentially had the power to overturn the elite.
The great Chartist movement of the 1840s, the first mass working class movement in the world, had left behind unmet demands for widening the number of people who could vote. In 1867, after a major riot, the Tories extended capitalist democracy and allowed a wider section of men to vote. They then had to persuade the expanding electorate to vote for them. The catastrophic splits in the Liberal Party in 1886 over Irish Home Rule allowed them to emerge as the dominant party of the ruling class. This was contrary to Karl Marx’s expectation that the Liberals, a party of the rising factory owners and traders, would swallow the Tories.
The centre of their appeal was to be a national party standing for family, hierarchy, order and empire. Such ideas cloaked the capitalist policies and priorities behind the “classless” appeal. Imperialism, they claimed, was in British workers’ interests. Capitalism would expand by extending the colonies and exploiting other parts of the world and so, they claimed, workers could have a bit of the surplus. That imperialist push was particularly focused in Ireland where they deliberately fostered Unionist bigotry and violence against nationalists and Republicans. This helpfully gave them a base in cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the Tories added fighting the spectre of Communism to their flag-waving nationalism. And they were also prepared to carry out bitter class battles such as the 1926 general strike. As the slump hit they were able to play on the division between the unemployed and employed workers. The Second World War produced such turmoil that the Tories again had to adapt to reform and the welfare state. They were fortunate that a long boom enabled them, for a while, to pose as a party delivering for everyone.
When the boom ended, capitalists demanded a confrontation with workers to drive down wages—and Margaret Thatcher unleashed the storm. At the same time, she held together enough of a base grouped around fear of the mob, individualism, nationalism and opposition to overturning of hierarchies. Can they do it again? There have been plenty of predictions of Tory demise in the past. They pointed to the ebbing of deference towards those at the top of society, increasing urbanisation that weakens traditional ties and a steady liberalisation in social attitudes.
Socialist writer John Ross produced an important book after Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983 that led to predictions Labour was unlikely to ever form a government again. Ross insisted that Thatcher’s success hid their decline. Every Tory victory since 1931, he pointed out, had seen the Tory vote at a lower level than the one before—and 1983 was no exception. In 2010 he reaffirmed his belief that “Britain is heading towards a new era of proportional representation and coalition because of the long-term working out of powerful social trends”.
But then 2017 saw one of the biggest Tory votes ever, and 2019 an even larger vote and a thumping majority. Would Ross, now a propagandist for the Chinese state, see these as just blips on the Tories’ long march to destruction? Last year Phil Burton-Cartledge tried to show the weaknesses of the 2019 Tory win. He showed, “Despite Brexit being ‘settled’ by the 2019 election, the political splits in capital are far from healed”.
He added that the Conservative Party was alienating large groups of voters “thereby imperilling its mass support”. He argued that Tory racism and sexism revolted more and more younger people. And this generation had no sure route to a stable income and property ownership. Burton-Cartledge added that the Tory party is “increasingly in hock to certain sections of capital whose short-term interests sit uncomfortably with the collective interest of British capital as a whole.”
But class identification, and even voting patterns, have never simply been a matter of material factors. They are also about ideology and political struggle. The reality of workers’ lives under capitalism—low pay, inequality, privileges for the rich— clash with pro-Tory notions. Yet backward ideas don’t just vanish because people’s conditions nosedive. It’s a speciality of Toryism to offer even the poorest someone else below them to kick. It’s why we can expect Johnson now to focus on racism, authoritarianism and contempt for environmental action.
Above all you can’t understand what happens to the Tories without looking at the opposition to them and the actions of the Labour and trade union leaders. Thatcher’s reign would have abruptly ended in 1984 or 1985 if the whole labour movement had rallied round the miners during their great strike. The austerity regime of David Cameron and George Osborne could have been snuffed out had the union leaders built on the 2011 strikes.
Such examples underline that breaking Tory rule is not fundamentally about elections but about the outcomes of struggle and what happens in the workplaces and the streets. Johnson is fortunate that he faces such an uninspiring Labour leader as Keir Starmer whose only strategy is to hope that the Tories will make themselves unelectable. The Tories’ future partly depends on their manoeuvres. But if they survive it’s because our side lets them.
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