A reply to Dan Hodges: why it’s not surprising some Tories aren’t bothered about winning in 2015

dan hodgesThe Telegraph’s token Labour blogger Dan Hodges has a typically punchy post today – Do the Tories actually want to win in 2015? – highlighting the fatalism of some Tory MPs who think victory next time is possible but not worth it:

Hardly worth it? What, just managing to scrape a win at the next election, just managing to govern for another five years, just managing to drive through your agenda on health care reform, welfare reform, education reform, etc?

The Conservative Party is currently in the middle of the biggest sulk in British political history. “It’s not fair, we didn’t win the election, and you told us we would win the election, and you only had that Gordon Brown to beat, and he’s rubbish, and now we can’t do what we wanted to do, so we’re not getting out of bed!”

I genuinely don’t understand it. The Tories spent 13 years in the political wilderness. Okay, it wasn’t quite as long as Labour’s post 1979 exile, but it was still their longest period out of power since the passing of the Representation of the People Act. Then they finally get the keys to No. 10, and just over two-and-a-half years later they’re stomping around the place like a group of stroppy teenagers.

Dan is right: but only up to a point.

A large chunk of Tory MPs do seem to prefer the purity of opposition to the compromise of being in power. The Spectator reports that 25 of them have already submitted no-confidence letters, over half the required number to trigger a leadership ballot which could putsch David Cameron out of Downing Street. He would, presumably, be replaced by an even righter-wing Cornerstoner, a Tory version of Michael Foot but probably with less electoral appeal. For those of us on the outside looking in their behaviour is quite remarkable. As Alex Massie recently reminded the Tories:

Despite what some people might have you believe I can assure you that the general public does not in fact consider this a left-wing government. This Conservative government is actually perceived as being pretty right-wing. The people may be wrong but that’s what they think.

So why do I think Dan Hodges in only part-right?

Because he’s adopted the very Blairite tendency (which also used to be the definition of Conservatism) to assume that the simple act of occupation of power by your tribe should be good enough to keep the tribe-members happy. It’s a logical assumption: not only do you deprive your opponents of office, you get to do a few things that you want, too. Who could possibly object? Only the obsessives, surely?

It’s that logic which has kept the Lib Dems united — by and large: more so the parliamentary party than the wider membership — since May 2010. The liberal temperament is different, of course: we’re pluralists, mostly moderates, default compromisers. Yet still the party has shed members: up to one-third have resigned or lapsed in the last three years.

And if even we, the true believers in let’s-all-work-together-in-the-national-interest-guys politics, baulk at the demands made on us in the name of Coalition how surprising is it that Conservatives, who never dreamt they would have to make concessions to us muesli-chomping sandal-wearers, are in umbrage?

The old political tribes are fragmenting. There are barely 350,000 card-carrying members of the main three parties today: Labour c.190,000 members, the Tories c.130,000, and the Lib Dems c.40,000. That’s one-tenth of what it was in the 1950s in the old and certain days of two-party politics. The nucleus that remain as dues-paying members today are disproportionately the most zealous, the most convinced; it’s unsurprising they’re finding it hard to come to terms with the politics of compromise, the new normal.

Dan’s Labour party would have experienced the same pains of sharing power as the Tories are currently suffering. Frustration: that’s what happens when ideologues bump up against the realisation their ideology doesn’t command majority support. And frustration is never a constructive catalyst. It’s usually irrational — and that’s just how the Tory party is reacting.

A rational Tory party (indeed, a rational Labour party) would recognise that the old tribal certainties are, if not completely gone, then definitely on their way out. Power in the future, domestically and internationally, depends on being able to build alliances, to create alignments.

In short: political leaders will need maximum flexibility at exactly the same time as their parties are becoming more rigid and un-yielding. In those circumstances, it’s not just the Tory party which will be understandably apprehensive about winning.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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9 Comments

  • Frank Furter 29th Mar '13 - 4:44pm

    There was a time when the Conservatives were a pragmatic party; their ideology, if they had one, was to build on, preserve, develop and use established institutions. It was not anti-state, it was rather a party that tried to balance the interests of institutions (including the state) with those of private business and individuals. There is now a strong ideological wing. It calls itself Thatcherite, but she was herself far more pragmatic than her current followers want to admit. They are imbued with the zeal of true believers, they hate the compromise of coalition, and they hate Lib Dems because they are not true to the faith. They destroyed Major, now they are out to get Cameron. They will not be satisfied until the party splits and the heretics are driven out. Then the true believers can join with UKIP to create a ‘new force’ in British politics. Then the voters will reward them with a massive majority at some future election, and Britain can look forward to the new Eden – circa 1955.

  • Up until the great economic seizure of 2008, the economy was ‘good’, for pretty much everyone, for pretty much four decades, and society was, generally, at peace with itself. So much so, that we were able to offshore our grime, carbon exhaust, and much of our industry, and as a result, our ‘blue collars’ took to office jobs, and became self determined ‘white collars’. The new middle class was born.
    Recognising this social shift, all political parties strived for the tolerant middle,; the centre ground politics, and you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between the ‘reds’, and the ‘blues’, and whether we knew it or not, we were all centrist liberals, (for a while).
    “A rational Tory party (indeed, a rational Labour party) would recognise that the old tribal certainties are, if not completely gone, then definitely on their way out.”
    Had the pursuit of centre ground politics been allowed to continue, then, as you say, the old tribal certainties, would have definitely been on their way out. However, I think that what happened to the world economy in 2008 changed all that, and indeed, was so profound that centre ground politics is now dissolving, albeit, at a deceivingly slow pace to the casual observer. But for sure, the white collar ‘promise’ is failing the new middle class, and even though we hardly see it yet, the ‘haves’, and the ‘have not’s’, are separating out, into tribes once again.
    Is it just the Tories that are restless and war weary? I think there are some, within all three main parties, that have enjoyed, and thrived, on the centre ground politics that a wholesome inclusive economy made possible. But a few are becoming keenly aware, that the economy has changed fundamentally, and in a secular, not cyclic fashion. And they also realise that as a result of these tectonic economic shifts, there will need to be a kind of financial ‘scything’, to the social contract, so much so, that the cosy centre ground will become, over time, a dead zone. The question is, do the Tories or any of the main parties have the stomach for a shift away from the comfy centre, back to the political tribalism that is on the horizon ?

  • jenny barnes 30th Mar '13 - 8:51am

    Does that mean that a rational LD party member would expect the party, when in power, to do the opposite of it’s espoused values, and those for which the party member campaigned, and presumably thought that the LD party would help advance? Why would they bother?

  • jenny barnes 30th Mar '13 - 8:51am

    its.

    sigh

  • paul barker 30th Mar '13 - 4:18pm

    I agree with the general drift of the article but I would be a bit more picky on the Labour/Tory membership figures. The Conservatives claim not to collect National membership figures (honest guv) so there are no official numbers, we rely on rumours. 130,000 was the figure being bandied around last summer but “less than 100,000″ has been mentioned more recently. The only certainty is that Conservative membership has fallen faster than either ours or Labours.
    The Labour figure is from Xmas 2011, we have to wait till the summer for 2012s total.

  • “Power in the future, domestically and internationally, depends on being able to build alliances, to create alignments.”

    Perhaps you should point this out to Danny Alexander. His piece in todays Sun is diabolical !

    Talking about ‘bedroom blockers’ reminds me of a time when there was a concerted effort to stop the use of ‘bed blockers’ re older people in the health service because it was recognised as a nasty slur on them yet here we have not just an MP but the Chief Secretary to the Treasury using this vile term to attack two named persons who are council house tenants despite their wealth !

    Council house tenancy never has been subject to a means test & perhaps Mr Dobson & Mr Crow might just consider the bribe of £100,000 discount to buy the house thus removing it from council stock permanently & making the lack of social housing even worse !

    Just a thought Mr Alexander – how about building more social housing ? After all, it’s been 3 years now & how many have been completed under your watch ? Glass houses & stones are not a good mix.

    Alliances are built when both parties come to talks with an open mind & a willingness to negotiate the terms – not by the minor party attacking everything done by the previous administration. Somebody really ought to teach this to the ministers of the party.

  • It will be interesting to see how this flexibility pans out if 2015 sees (as many expect) a reversal of 2010, with Labour the biggest party in a Hung Parliament – if that happens, will the Lib Dems be able to bring themselves to go into coalition with Labour and vote against a lot of things they have voted for during this Parliament (the NHS changes being introduced this week, for instance)?

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