‘Don’t be so gloomy, the wheel will turn’. That, in essence, is the counter-argument to my last column.
Two weeks ago, I made the case on this site that the nature of the Conservative Party has changed. It has done so to reflect the fact that the swing voter in the swing seats has a different set of values than was the case before. Compared to the swing voters of the past (and, indeed, the typical Conservative voter of the present), the polling evidence shows that the voters who gave Boris Johnson his electoral triumph in 2019 are economically left wing and socially right wing.
If the Conservatives want to retain those Red Wall seats, I argued, they will need to deliver economic policies that are consistent with these views – high spending and interventionist – and ensure that cultural issues remain salient. It was a depressing conclusion, I argued, if you were a ‘small state free marketeer, or a one nation social liberal’ and that ‘I fear it is too late to turn back’.
One person who took issue with my conclusion was my good friend, David Lidington. As well as being probably the nicest person in politics, he is also one of the wisest. In his response on ConHome, David set out, from the perspective of a liberal Conservative, reasons to be optimistic.
First, he makes the very fair point that, in the 45 years in which he has been a member of the Conservative Party, it has been a home for many different types of Conservative and that ‘different leaders of the party, at different times have chosen to emphasise different elements of the broad Conservative tradition’.
Second, he acknowledges that ‘we shall want to hang on to traditional Labour supporters who lent us their votes last December, which in turn means that in four years’ time they need to see that we are at least beginning to deliver results for their families and neighbourhoods’ but that ‘to win again in 2024 we shall need to secure support from more younger voters than we did in either of the last two elections and to do that will mean reaching out to people whose values are, in the convenient shorthand, more “socially liberal” than those of their parents and grandparents, and who want to see political parties to take seriously their concerns about issues like the environment’.
‘Far from giving up in despair,’ David concludes, ‘liberal, centrist Conservatives should redouble our efforts to influence the party’s thinking about how we can win again in 2024’.
I genuinely wish David and other liberal, centrist Conservatives well in that endeavour. His analysis of the need to appeal to younger more socially liberal voters is one I share for two reasons.
First, I think it would lead to better government and, second, in the longer term, the Conservative Party will need to broaden its base. Relying on the votes of those born before 1960 has obvious long term problems. But in terms of understanding what will happen, there is a tension between what I would like to happen and the Prime Minister’s preferences, as revealed in the events of last year. I suspect those revealed preferences are a more reliable indicator.
Last year’s general election result was a triumph for the Prime Minister. It was the product of strategic clarity. Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, there was no real attempt to appeal to both sides of the Brexit debate (although he received the reluctant support of plenty of Remainers who were terrified of Jeremy Corbyn) but that gave him a clear message which appealed to the half of the country that favoured leaving the EU.
Theresa May had sought to seek a resolution to the Brexit issue that satisfied both sides of the argument. Leavers would see us depart from the EU, Remainers would see sufficient continuity to avoid the economic and security downsides that we feared from a hard Brexit. In my view, this was the sensible approach to the referendum result but by the time we got to last year it had little public support. Opinion was polarised into supporting a hard Brexit at any price or no Brexit at all, as the results in the European Parliamentary elections showed.
Johnson’s strategy was to be clearly identified as being on one side of the argument. In everything he did – from the make-up of the Cabinet, the prorogation of Parliament, the withdrawal of the whip for Conservative rebels, the nature of the general election campaign – was designed to win over the support of Leave voters. Forcing the Brexit Party essentially to step-aside in the general election meant that the Conservative Party had a near monopoly on Leave voters against a divided and badly led opposition.
Some will argue that these were the circumstances of 2019, but that does not make them the circumstances for 2024. And this brings me to the key question. Are we living through a fundamental realignment of British politics? Are our politics no longer defined by divisions on the grounds of economic class but on cultural identity? The somewheres versus the anywheres, the provincial and rural versus the metropolitan, non-graduates versus graduates, the socially conservative versus the socially liberal, the nationalist versus internationalist.
My view is that we are in such a period. More to the point, I think that the Prime Minister and the people around him believe that we are and that their view is that the most likely route to electoral success for the Conservative Party (and the route to success last year) is for the Party to embrace that realignment and establish itself as the Party for those on one side of the new dividing line in British politics.
Brexit may have accelerated this transformation but it did not cause it. Throughout the world, centre-right parties are being dragged in a similar direction as the social democratic left loses its grip on its traditional supporters, providing an opportunity for parties who can defend the cultural identity of those voters.
If that analysis is right (and, again, I would rather it is not), the wheel is not going to turn, at least not for a long time. Political realignments do not happen very often and this realignment has worked out very nicely for the Conservatives so far. But it means that the Conservative Party will not be economically or socially liberal (at least in terms of issues of national identity) for some time to come.
There is one other point. If I am wrong and David Lidington is right that the best course of action is for the Conservatives to seek the support of younger, more socially liberal voters there is a significant obstacle. Even though he is in many ways a social liberal himself, Boris Johnson is too battle-scarred, too associated with Brexit, too polarising to reinvent the Conservative Party yet again.
Fresh leadership by 2024 would be necessary. Someone not associated with the turmoil and divisions of 2016-19, someone with the charisma and communication skills to appeal to younger voters, someone who could embody modern, multi-racial Britain. Maybe, just maybe, such a leader could take the Conservative Party in a different direction. But who could fit the bill? Hmm.