Kate Dommett is a lecturer in the public understanding of politics at the University of Sheffield.
With a leadership contest on the far horizon, what is the shape and substance of the modern Tory ideology?
To win the leadership of the Conservative Party, whenever that position should become available, the successful candidate will have to navigate some treacherous ideological terrain. They will have to address whether, and how, the Conservative modernisation project should be renewed for a new era, at the same time as longstanding Tory dilemmas are likely to be reasserting themselves: Britain’s place in Europe, questions of national identity and the future shape of the Union, the tension between social liberalism and traditionalism, and the pressures and contradictions of a neo-liberal political economy.
Will the Conservative Party continue to strengthen its English political identity, at the expense of its historic unionism, or the cosmopolitanism implicit in its organisational modernisation? Will the social liberalism of Cameron’s leadership be accepted, or will a standard-bearer emerge to argue that modernisation has gone too far and ought to be rolled back? And, most important of all, how will leading candidates align themselves in the forthcoming European Union referendum on the UK’s membership, and what will the aftermath of that referendum bring?
Central to answering these questions is a better understanding of the ideological currents flowing through the contemporary Conservative Party. Its relationship with ideology has always been complex. The party has long defined its identity in relation to a ‘common sense’ approach to politics, but underneath the rhetoric of pragmatism and the national interest, very different ideological traditions can be found. Neoliberals and neoconservatives, wets and dries, Eurosceptics and those less sceptical (if not overtly Europhile), all are evident.
Under Cameron’s leadership compassionate conservatism has come to define the Party’s identity, but with his retirement scheduled before 2020, a window of opportunity has opened up in which the party’s message might be redefined. As the succession battle commences, the Party will therefore turn its attention to an internal debate about ideological priorities. While the candidates’ precise visions are not yet clear, much of the debate will be played out between modernising and traditionalist perspectives; two traditions that advance different moral and social outlooks. On one side stand traditional conservatives who uphold long-held conceptions of institutions, such as marriage and the family, and on the other side stand the modernisers, who tend to hold more liberal social positions, and who argue that the party needs to adapt to reflect modern conditions.
The difference between these approaches is most readily apparent through the different policy positions each side advances with, for example, traditionalists opposing gay marriage and modernisers tending to voice support. These perspectives do, however, also present alternative views of how best to secure electoral victory.
Modernisers argue, in line with prevailing electoral logic, that to achieve power the party need to track towards the centre ground of politics, adapting policy positions to align with the so-called ‘median voter’, a strategy that Tony Blair pursued with his ‘third way’ and Cameron explored by positioning himself as the heir to Blair. Traditionalists reject this view and espouse the electoral viability of their ideas, with members of the 1922 committee, for example, stressing the need for a stronger message on immigration and Europe.
These debates have played out in the party’s recent history. In 2005, Cameron attempted to expand the party’s appeal by promoting modernisation. He deflected attention away from the EU, immigration and taxation, and instead emphasised the Conservative’s commitment to flexible working, environmental protection, international aid and the NHS. Under his leadership the party rebranded with a new logo, and he undertook a series of media-friendly photo opportunities designed to emphasise the party’s commitment to environmental and social concerns, issues associated with the median voter.
Around 2008, however, Cameron began to display a more traditional message. As the global financial crisis hit he renounced key elements of his modernisation strategy, dropping the pledge to retain Labour’s public spending plans and articulating a new programme of financial austerity and stronger controls on immigration. Commitments to the environment and flexible working were quietly removed from the political agenda, and ‘modernisation’ disappeared from the party lexicon.
Cameron’s period as leader therefore exhibited both strategies. The modernisation agenda was, however, never put to the electoral test, whilst the traditionalist strategy could be seen to have had limitations. Whilst the party secured an outright majority in 2015 there are signs that they have failed to tackle many negative associations and, as such, lack support amongst key electoral demographics. For this reason, there is uncertainty over which strategy is best equipped to deliver ongoing electoral success.
In this context, it is interesting to consider the notable ideological energy around the modernisation agenda within the party. There is vocal support from established figures such as Francis Maude and Michael Gove, think tanks such as Bright Blue, and collectives such as Renewal and the Good Right. These groups have helped shape a new modernising agenda that is self-conscious in its appeal to skilled working-class voters, focuses on the need to cultivate trust around the management of public services, support British diversity, promote the Living Wage, build affordable housing, protect the NHS, cut taxes for the low-paid and build world-class public services. These policy ideas may be used to reposition the party, reshaping its ideological agenda and attempting to expand its electoral appeal. However, it is not clear how extensive support for this approach is, and whether a candidate will emerge to carry this agenda forward.
It may therefore be that the leadership contest is focused not on whether to elect a moderniser or a traditionalist leader, but rather concentrates on candidates’ policy positions. Debates on key issues such as immigration, public service provision, economic regeneration, devolution and national identity could therefore be decisive. Indeed, it may be that the contest is focused largely on candidates’ positions on the referendum on the European Union. With different positions appearing to emerge, with George Osborne likely to run as a Euro-realist candidate, against Boris Johnson or Theresa May for the Eurosceptic outers, this schism may dominate the selection process.
Whilst understandable, a focus on issues could cause the Conservatives to lose touch with the essential problem of how the party maintains and increases its electoral appeal. Any prospective candidate would do well to consider such issues, looking beyond key positional questions to contemplate how the Conservative Party can secure greater levels of public support. For this reason the debate between traditionalists and modernists should be of interest as it is not simply about different ideological positions, but also about how it is possible to continue to win.
A longer version of this piece appears in IPPR’s journal, Juncture.