Sunday, August 22, 2010
The Tories have been the dominant bourgeois party in the UK for a century, replacing the Liberals who have spent most of the duration as a middle class protest party. The electoral coalition that has kept the Tories in power has been broad. The high point of the Conservatives' electoral support was when they led the National Government in 1931 with 60% of the vote, and for much of the immediate post-war period they could demonstrate support at or near 50% of the vote. Since 1974, their support has oscillated between 30% and 44% of the active electorate, remaining consistently in the high end of that spectrum during the 1980s, and slumping to the lower end since then - that slump being the main reason for Cameronism, and the emergence of coalition politics. As Andrew Gamble once said, the Tories have never been the explicit mouthpiece of capital in the same way that they once were for the landed gentry. This is because the nature of parliamentary politics has changed considerably since the Great Reform Act 1832 broke the power of 'rotten boroughs' and empowered the urban manufacturing capitalists, and since the Second Reform Act 1867 ensured that the working class formed an electoral majority.
The Tories responded to the rise of urban capital through a conscious realignment with this emerging, dominant fraction of the ruling class, and by the turn of the twentieth century had become interlocked with industry and the City, forming prominent relationships with merchant banking and clearing banking families such as the Tukes, Barings, Rothschilds, Hoares, etc. Throughout the 20th Century, the Conservative Party cultivated links with, and was interpenetrated by, different segments of capital, from finance in the 1910s to mass transport industries in the interward period, and small businesses (the petit-bourgeosie) after 1979. The period in which the Conservative Party was most fully interpenetrated by the general interests of capital was after 1945, as the Liberals experienced near total eclipse and politics seemed to polarise between the party of the trade unions and the party of the employers.
The rise of mass democracy forced the Tories to adapt by developing constituency associations to mobilise middle class supporters and, eventually, a segment of the working class as well. Of course, there was never any intention of allowing these vulgar locals to influence policy, and it is a commonplace of analysis of the Tory party that its mass membership exerts precious little influence on the policies pursued. Even the conventional histories, such as John Ramsden's An Appetite for Power (which retails the baseless cliche that the Conservative Party has no ideology, and is pragmatic and traditionalist in orientation), acknowledge that the deep-rooted contempt for democracy among the Tory party's upper caste resulted in 'popular' organs being adjoined to the existing Conservative apparatus without fundamentally altering the decision-making process.
Until 1998 and the 'Hague rules', the membership did not even get a say in the choosing of the party leader, and their impact on policymaking has always been slight. Patrick Seyd et al have given reasons to qualift this point with their detailed analysis of the Tory party membership, which objects to any outright dismissal of the role that activists play in the party's direction and success, but the point about the basically hierarchical, undemocratic nature of the party stands. Activists can constrain and shape policies, but those who initiate policy and see it through are the core leadership which consists of direct representatives of large capital and a professionalised managerial elite.
The relationship with capital has not always been easy. This is partly because capital is fractious, its immediate interests ending to diverge rather than converge, especially during a crisis. If the Tories act as a sort of executive for the ruling class, it doesn't mean that their tactics, their ideology, and their attempts to mobilise the middle class base will not occasionally bring them into conflict with one, some, or most segments of capital. Wym Grant reports that during the 1970s, employers frequently conflicted with the Conservative Party over the handling of labour militancy. One notoriously right-wing boss approached Heath during the 1972 miners' strike with a solution based on offering the miners a very large sum of money to stop their action. He might have seen the longer term ruling class interest in beating labour, but trying to run a business with constant power blackouts wasn't doing him any favours.
Until the 'winter of discontent', it must be said, capital did not decisively move behind Thatcher's Conservatives as the best vehicle for dealing with the unions. There was a real feeling in elite quarters that with Thatcher's leadership, the Tories were heading to some ideological loony-bin of the petit-bourgeoisie, UKIP-style, and that Labour would end up the most efficient ambassador for business interests in society. Nevertheless, business did swing behind the Tories when it was clear that the institutions of the labour movement could not contain the workers' insurgency, as did the media: the red-baiting about the Labour Left in the capitalist press was of a quality that hadn't been seen since the 1920s. Thatcher delivered, and the CBI's goals, including some of their most fanciful ambitions, were accomplished. From 1978 until the poll tax riots, it was clear that the Tories were the most effective weapon in capital's armoury. The party's later inability to part with its aggressive Thatcherite posture when it was no longer an election-winning formula, and no longer strictly to capital's requirements - especially as regards the EU, which the petit-bourgeoisie is far more hostile to than big capital - led to the doldrums of the Hague/IDS/Howard era. In that period, a large segment of the centrist middle class abandoned the Tories for the Liberals, while business jumped ship for the glamorous New Labour party - a party rooted in the organised working class, but for that all the more alluring in its promise to deliver a new social compact with no fundamental alteration in the property structure. The Tories, out of favour with big capital, nurtured their petit-bourgeois base, though even small businesses had little to complain about with a New Labour government.
Cameron, though basically a Thatcherite in his small black heart, was selected by capital, and particularly by the capitalist media, as the most likely candidate to stop the Tories from repeatedly blundering down the blind alley of anti-EU, xenophobic nationalism. For all that has been said about Cameron aligning with the European far right, he has shown himself to be far more ductile on specific policy issues coming from Europe than some would allow - especially the Treaty, where his 'iron guarantee' of a referendum turned into a jelly acquiescence. What the Tories under Cameron will do is just enough to satisfy the lower middle class bedrock, and prevent the UK Independence Party from making any further incursions. At the same time, the coalition has raised the possibility of forging a new centre-right electoral bloc based on pro-business economic policies, relative social liberalism, centrism on Europe, and an immigration policy that sorts out capital's labour supply problem, appears to discard some of the worst practises such as child detention, but could best be described as segregation-with-a-human face.
The problem for the Tories in pursuing such a course is that the basis for the centrist coalition they're creating is highly fissile, and unlikely to hold as they impose the most savage attack on living standards in living memory. The ruling class returned to the Conservative Party in 2010 judging it to be the party best equipped to implement its austerity agenda, realise its demand for further weakening of labour's bargaining position, and protect it from demands for new regulations and higher business taxes. Had the Tories won an outright parliamentary majority, which would have been possible had they restored their share of the vote to anything like 1980s levels, they would have had the 'legitimacy' required to implement the cuts, without the need for civil service intervention, and without the need for coalition-forming.
But the Tories' class base had become objectively narrower, due to the proletarianisation of new social layers, including elements of the petit-bourgeois, and the professionals. Changing gender relations have also played their part. For example, through much of the post-war period, female voters had been a Tory bulwark. But the mass entry of women into the workforce, especially the public sector and the least secure parts of the workforce, changed all that, and the Tories have only partially recouped their losses among female voters made in 1997, and least of all among DE voters, who rallied for Labour. Similarly, while some Liberal voters in middle class boroughs returned to the Tories, not enough did to grant them a large enough plurality. In the 2010 election, the Tories got just over a third of the vote with 36.9%, comprising 40% of supervisors, professionals, and clerical workers (ABC1). There is probably a spike of about 50-60% support from small business proprietors and lone traders hidden in there. They won just over a third of the 'skilled working class' (C2), whereas in the 1980s they would have gained over 40%. And they got just about 30% of DE voters. All this on a turnout of 65%, one of the lower electoral mobilisations in the post-WWII period, and a continuation of the trend since 2001, when the turnout fell below 70% for the first time, crashing to 59%. Since the lowest turnout is - the rally to Labour notwithstanding - still among the bottom 'social classes' and among former Labour voters, the Tories' actual support among the voting age population is likely to be closer to a quarter than a third. That is what the combined support of finance, big industrial capital, small businesses, a layer of professionals, and a segment of the working class, amounts to.
The processes of social polarisation that would tend to undermine the stability of mass bourgeois parties have certainly been richly in evidence for the last thirty or so years. The narrowing of the Tory base has been partly the result of that, though these factors have some time been offset by an increase in the notional wealth of 'middling' layers on the basis of debt and speculation. The financial crisis, and the malaise of the world system that has ensued, does not permit the survival of such offsetting factors. Objectively, much of the Tory base is about to experience a diminution in living standards, which will be aggravated by the attack on the welfare state. More and more of the lower middle class will experience proletarianisation, just as the proletarianisation of former professions is being accelerated.
In short, I suspect that the class basis of the Conservative Party is about to be further, sharply narrowed, just as class power is increasingly concentrated in a smaller fraction of finance capital and big industrial capital. On top of that, the expansion of the centre vote that led to the rise of the Liberals, and the break-up of the social democratic coalition which has benefited the Tories electorally, may well be substantially reversed by the experience of this coalition. This does not mean that the Labour Party will necessarily benefit, of course. Labour's coalition has been narrowing too. As Ed Miliband acknowledges, in recent years this has been largely because it has failed to mobilise its working class support. Only a dramatic change in policy, which I don't see happening short of profound pressure from the grassroots and the public sector unions, could begin to reverse this slide. Just as possible is that the electoral system will become even less representative, as more and more working class voters boycott. Unless there is a revival of class struggle which plays out inside the parliamentary system, the franchise is liable to become once more the property of the ruling class, with the sharp-elbowed middle classes that David Cameron speaks of bargaining for largesse. On the other hand, to the extent that Labour is successful in rebuilding its support, business may well transfer its loyalties to Labour the better to manage the fall-out. Indeed, as in 1945, it may be that an upsurge in class struggle gives Labour the opportunity to be the agent of that new economic paradigm that the more far-sighted capitalists are looking for in vain.