The Conservatives have now been in government for longer than New Labour, but voters are increasingly abandoning the party. David Jeffery analyses attempts at reinvigoration such as the National Conservatism conference and the Conservative Democratic Organisation, concluding that increasing the power of party members is unlikely to be the solution.
It should come as no surprise that the Conservative Party is having a bad time of it. The party lost 1063 seats in the local elections and on current projections is forecast to lose over 160 seats in the next general election.
Among voters, there is a sense that Britain is stuck in a rut. And, after ruling for longer than the Labour governments of Blair and Brown, so is the Conservative Party. Many of the party’s policies are unpopular, and on the most important issues facing voters the Conservatives are performing direly: 71% think the government is handling the economy badly and 81% think the government is handling the NHS and immigration badly. Just 17%of voters approve of the government.
The fact that Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Greens all increased their tally of councillors suggests that voters are increasingly flocking to whoever can displace the Conservative incumbents: Paula Surridge termed this phenomena ‘negative partisanship’, and Rob Ford provides ample evidence of anti-Conservative voting in the local elections on his excellent Substack. The Conservative Party is losing votes to everyone: 11% of their 2019 voter base now backs Labour, 10% back Reform, 5% back the Liberal Democrats, and 2% back the Green Party! 16% don’t know, and 8% are so fed up they would not vote.
In some ways, this is a natural political phenomenon: in 2008 Heppell noted how long-serving governments suffered from degenerative tendencies, placing the New Labour government in a comparative context with the Conservatives in the 1960s and the 1990s. Roe-Crines updated this analysis for the Conservatives under Johnson, and the picture has not improved since.
This does not mean, however, that the right more broadly has given up. Rishi Sunak is not short of advice, the most energetic of which has been from last week’s National Conservatism conference, held in London (of course). It would be too much to say the movement has a common ideological basis, with speakers ranging from Thatcherites to traditionalists to culture warriors to post-liberals to the simply outraged, and only time will tell whether a serious force on the Conservative right can emerge from this melting pot of intellectual energy.
A few days prior, just down the M3 (and M27, if we’re being fussy), the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) also hosted its inaugural conference in Bournemouth.
As the name suggests, the CDO seeks to expand party democracy within the Conservative Party, fuelled by deep opposition to the forced resignation of Boris Johnson as leader (ironically, a move that 59% of Conservative Party members approved of) and the subsequent ‘coronation’ of Sunak (despite 60% of members approving of MPs uniting around a single unity candidate, and members opposing a say for… members).
Under the CDO’s plans, the Party Chairman (and other officer positions) would be directly elected, members would have a greater influence over the agenda at the party conference, and an ability to change the party constitution. ConservativeHome, the pluralistic critical friend of the Conservative Party, has two characteristically good pieces on the CDO: William Atkinson presented a less-than-favourable take on the conference, whilst Harry Phibbs argued it provided ‘a formula that would help the party thrive’.
It seems to me that the former is closer to the reality. Notwithstanding the fact that the CDO seems to be an elite-led project, funded by Peter Cruddas, with very little in the way of boots on the ground, it is not clear that opening up the Conservative Party to greater party democracy would be a sensible step to take, and it certainly does not seem like it would put the Conservatives on a solid electoral footing.
Whilst it is true that Conservative Party members are closer to the average voter (and thus to the average Conservative voter) on both economic and social values than Conservative MPs – that is, MPs are more economically right and more socially liberal – when it comes to specifics members and the public are not as close as the general measure of ‘values’ would suggest. Obviously, they are more likely to support leaving the EU than the average person, but they are also more likely to think immigration is bad for the economy and undermines the UK’s cultural life, and less likely to think that austerity went too far.
We also see clear evidence of this in the approval ratings of key Conservative figures. On those in charge of the three key issues facing the country – the economy, NHS, and immigration – the gap between Tory members and voters is stark.
Among the public, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has a net favourability of -46 (-26 among 2019 Tory voters!), but ConHome’s survey of Tory members puts him at +0.6. The health secretary, Steve Barclay, has a net favourability rating of -21 (-6 among 2019 Tories) but an approval rating of +49.5 among members. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, has net favourability of -35 (-5 among 2019 Tories) but +47 among members.
Historically, the Conservative Party has not gone in for party democracy in the way the Liberals and Labour Party have. In its recent history it has, instead, given its leaders vast scope to set the party’s direction. Whilst this has obviously annoyed some grassroots members, it has also contributed to the party’s ability to make sudden ideological changes and thus adapt to the changing political contexts. Would Disraeli have been able to enact one nation Conservatism or Thatcher power on with her economic revolution if their hands were bound by party members? It is unlikely.
Giving party members more powers won’t reinvigorate the Conservative Party. There is not some hidden group of voters who would suddenly spring to Rishi’s cause if only they were allowed to elect the Conservative Party chairman.
Instead, the Conservatives need to address their Millwall problem: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’. The fact is, the Conservative Party is increasingly turning people who would probably not vote for them into people who would never vote for them, and worst of all, into people who would vote tactically to remove them.
Focusing on internal Conservative Party democracy now is like unionising for a greater say on who gets to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.
By Dr David Jeffery, Senior Lecturer in British Politics, University of Liverpool.