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It's time for Labour to understand the Conservative Dilemma

Boris Johnson's racist comments demonstrate the new strategy of the Conservative party. Labour need to understand what it is if they are to win.

Boris Johnson. Image, Suzanne Plunkett, Chatham House, CC2.0.

So we know that Boris Johnson is prepared to use racist imagery. But is he also a fool?

To answer this question we have to go to the heart of the Conservative Dilemma. Because there is not simply an ideological war raging inside the Tory party. The fact that he is now reportedly under investigation for his comments about Muslim Women reveals clearly the underlying tensions in the Tory high command. Nor is it simply a question of personal ambition. Though there is plenty of that.

There is also a major debate about the electability of the Conservatives as a majority government. Let’s remember that they have only gained a majority once in the last 23 years and that was a slender victory which they then threw away in 2017.

It is this which explains Boris Johnson's actions. An unprincipled man shackled to a lowering lust for power coldly calculating a route to office for the Conservatives which means jettisoning a significant part of their identity. Even if Theresa May succeeds in neutralising him, there are others on her backbenches (and some in office) who are more than willing to take up the mantle.

Cameron’s project was to attempt to build a centrist coalition based on a socially liberal Tory party with austerity economics. Although in 2015 he resorted to an election strategy based on a form of English Nationalism, pitting England against Scotland. In 2017, May abandoned the liberal part of this project altogether and offered austerity with 1950’s Tory values.

But if we put aside for a moment the swings and roundabouts of the last two elections, it is possible to see a long term secular decline in the Tory vote. In 1992 Major persuaded over 14 million people to vote Conservative. In 2015 they got just over 11 millionvotes and in 2017 over 13 million.

A number of factors have led to this situation but it is clear that the maneuvering at the head of the Conservative party in part reflects the struggle to find a new electoral strategy.

At the core of the Conservative Dilemma is the transformation of the English middle class which was traditionally the backbone of the Tories’ electoral base. But the English middle class has changed beyond all recognition in recent decades.

Middle class occupations have become increasingly restricted to graduate entry. And the experience of going to university, usually away from home, and the expansion of university places for a time to people from working class backgrounds, challenged the Tory values which had for so long been ingrained in the middle class. Cameron grappling with gay marriage for example was an attempt to re-establish a link to voters whose values were no longer the same as older Tory generations.

Equally, the nature of middle class employment changed. It became more insecure; pensions were not so advantageous and salaries were under pressure. Meanwhile the effects of austerity began to bite. University fees, increasing problems in the housing market, outsourcing of public sector professional occupations, all added pressure on this part of the electorate. If you were employed in the private sector too, life was difficult as the economy went global and decisions about your future were made in some remote headquarters often thousands of miles away.

The tendency of Britain to become increasingly unequal also played a part. Whilst for the overwhelming majority of the population incomes were in decline, especially since the banking crash in 2008, the richest saw an explosion in their wealth. The richest 1000 increased their wealth by £466 billion in the last ten years.

For small and medium sized employers in traditional sectors outside the financial sector there was a squeeze on profits and the opening of the market to global forces added to the problems faced in the Tory heartlands.

Across the whole of Britain – but most importantly for the Tories, in its English heartlands – a sense of anxiety about the present and the future had begun to emerge. Thus arose a feeling that the country was no longer working for most people. Also, there has been a growing a sense of disaffection with the British Establishment, whose political voice was always the Tory party.

In recent elections Labour’s policies increasingly resonated with voters who the Tories had traditionally taken for granted. Between 2005 and 2015 Labour’s proportion of ABC1 voters held steady. This process accelerated when Jeremy Corbyn became leader. At the 2017 election Labour increased its share of ABC1 voters by 12 points compared with 2015.

What has been described as a “populist moment” had arisen in Britain. Widespread distrust in politics, underpinned by uncontrolled economic and social change, meant that more of the same would no longer work.

We are familiar with the changes in the Labour party, but there has been less discussion about the implications of these underlying trends within the Conservative party. And this is where the recent activities of Boris Johnson and his cronies become clearer – though no less reprehensible.

Their project is an attempt to take the current populist moment to the right and build a reactionary populist movement supposedly offering relief to the millions of people who want to see change. Of course they will not tackle the real cause of alienation and decline because they can’t reject either austerity or neoliberalism, nor do they want to confront the British Establishment of which they are part.

Their answer in large part is to blame foreigners both in the form of the EU and also in dog-whistle commentary about Muslims for the difficulties which the country faces. They have looked across the water to Washington and have recently broken bread with President Trump’s most right wing advisors. They have employed the same ragbag of social media consultants and used deceitful techniques during the referendum.

Their purpose is to create a revolting new electoral coalition of voters based on a narrow minded English nationalism and racism, both overt and covert. Their intention is to create a Conservative party which resembles the early alt-right French political formation became known as poujadism. They have little problem with extreme right wingers like Farage and even ‘Tommy Robinson’. They would take pressure off the stagnant rate of profit in the indigenous private sector, outside the financial sector, by a ruthless attack on the living standards of workers and a further vicious cycle of ‘deregulation’.

And who is to say that they won’t succeed if we continue to either laugh at, or ignore, their small minded ways as if they are just personal eccentricities or foibles? The answer to this question is that the Labour party has to form a barrage with all progressive political and social forces in the country against this reactionary tide.

We can be confident that if we face it full square on, and in unity, that we can defeat racism, and show that austerity is cutting into the very fabric of our communities. We can demonstrate that inequality is damaging the lives of millions of people which is rewarding only a few thousand at most.

But to do all this we have to show that we can give a progressive expression to the populist sentiment. I believe Britain can find an inclusive brand of modernity which offers a proper future to all. But this will require a huge effort from our whole movement as we seek to change the rules of the game whilst simultaneously confronting a dangerous enemy. And it will require discipline and unity from our half million members.

It would be grossly irresponsible, and it would repeat the failures of earlier generations on the left, if we continue exclusively to face inwards with our party preoccupations. Of course there are matters which we must settle. But we have a programme which is the best in many generations; a leadership at last which won’t be bent by Establishment forces; a mass membership with no contemporary parallel in western Europe. And crucially we have a population which is desperate for a change in direction.

Whatever happens to Johnson, it’s time for Labour to face outwards and to prepare ourselves for the coming struggles with a rabid opponent. We only need to look across the Atlantic to see what happens if the left fails to unite around a radical candidate against the true enemy.

About the author

Jon Trickett is a Labour MP and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. 

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