With all the hype about UKIP people seem to be missing the real – though linked – story in the evolution of the British party system – the continuing and now accelerating existential crisis facing the Tory Party.
The Tories have historically been the dominant political party in British politics, bouncing back for long periods in government after short Labour interludes, and pragmatists adept at adjusting their political approach to match the mood of the electorate, as in the post-war period when they accepted the NHS and Welfare State.
Margaret Thatcher’s more ideological approach created a new coalition for them, including temporarily some blue collar ex-Labour voters attracted by right-to-buy and mass share ownership in privatised companies. This won them four general elections but ultimately sowed the seeds of a catastrophic decline because Thatcher’s evisceration of the UK’s manufacturing industry and the damage this did to communities relying on industry for their prosperity meant there are swathes of the North of England, Scotland and Wales that are now no-go areas for the Tories. Add to this regional dilemma a rising Lib Dem tide in the South West and extremely rapid demographic change which is making London a far more Labour-inclined city with a booming population, and the Tories don’t have many regions left where they are in play.
It is now 22 years since the Tories last won a sliver of a parliamentary majority in the 1992 election. They went on to suffer three crushing defeats at Tony Blair’s hands. Even presented with the open goal in 2010 of a very unpopular Labour government and PM and an economic crisis, they ended up 20 seats short of a majority, on just 36% of the vote.
There doesn’t seem to be any sign that they can form a majority government in 2015. The best they can play for is another hung parliament. This is because the Tory vote is distributed in a way that does not help them win the First Past the Post elections they rather stupidly campaigned to defend in the 2011 referendum. They stack up votes with high turnouts and big majorities in seats they will always win and which are not the General Election battleground. Mike Smithson at PoliticalBetting.com has suggested that Labour might win a majority even if the Tories get more votes nationally, and that the Tory position might be even worse because of the Lib Dems’ ability to defend their southern LD vs Con marginals with popular incumbent MPs and tactical voting even while their national vote is in tatters.
Tory Party membership has collapsed even faster than the general rate of decline of membership of political parties, down to 134,000 from 253,000 when David Cameron was elected leader in 2005.
Those members that remain are increasingly elderly. 61% are over 60 and the average age keeps increasing as few young people are recruited. Many of the keenest activists have defected to UKIP where they can find an uncompromising diet of political red meat away from the compromises of the Coalition.
This decline in their activist base is important because in close-run elections like 2010 and most likely 2015 ability to mobilise volunteer activists in key marginals could decide the outcome of the election.
Part of the reason for the decline in Tory fortunes is that they face unprecedented ideological competition from UKIP on their right. UKIP offers something of a crude version of the political recipe that made Mrs Thatcher popular with the Tory base. The Tories are thus faced with a huge dilemma. They cannot outbid UKIP’s populism, particularly on Europe and migration, without moving into territory which would make them unelectable with many swing voters. The compromises of being in coalition with the Lib Dems seem to have involved keeping all their unpopular economic and public services policies but being unable to give 2010 Tory voters what they want on the EU or the linked issue of immigration. The messaging that sustained their base in elections through to 2005 has been completely stolen from them.
Cameron talked about modernisation as a solution to the Tories’ woes in 2005 and thereby alienated their activist and voter base with a focus on liberalising the Tory image on issues like gay marriage that are anathema to those people. But then he didn’t drive forward any comprehensive wider reform of the Tory structure or policy platform sufficient to either bring in new groups of supporters as Blair did with New Labour, or to reduce the power of the party right over candidate selection.
He’s neither an election winner nor someone who has delivered popular policies for either his base or swing voters. He therefore faces a voter base and activist base and parliamentary party very few of whom feel any personal or ideological loyalty towards him. Most of them are on a spectrum somewhere between indifference towards his fate and absolute contempt.
The European elections on 22nd May are naturally the best battlefield for UKIP just as they were for the Tories when they monopolised the Eurosceptic franchise. The people who bother to vote will disproportionately be those who are motivated by anger about the EU. Other than blind tribal loyalty why would anyone who could vote Tory not vote UKIP instead?
If we have a similar result for the Euro elections as YouGov suggested on Sunday – just 19% polled as going to vote Conservative – it will be a disaster for the Tories, their worst vote in a national election ever.
Even if they recover it looks unlikely they will finish above third.
At this point the right of the Tory party will either start a new round of defections to UKIP or move to depose Cameron as party leader.
As Labour knows from our time in government, even botched coup attempts can be really damaging and destabilising this close to a General Election.
And who can be fielded against Cameron? Boris Johnson would certainly revitalise the Tories but he is not an MP yet so he can only run after a catastrophic General Election defeat, not in an effort to avert one. Would Osborne represent the kind of change Tory MPs and activists crave or which voters would need to be convinced of?
One outcome might be enough plotting and manoeuvring to really weaken Cameron, but leaving him in office to limp on wounded to the General Election.
This won’t necessarily be good news for Labour. The beneficiaries are as likely to be the rightwing populists of UKIP as us. The erosion of the Tory vote by a force to their right isn’t good news for anyone that wants a progressive future for Britain.
But as political theatre we could be about to see something really dramatic and historic happening – the meltdown of one of our major political parties. I would recommend buying some popcorn.