In 1997, as Tony Blair ended an 18 year Conservative government, there was a feeling among some that Conservatism would never be popular again.
The reason for that was compelling; the previous 18 years was built on Thatcherism. The persuasive logic behind Thatcherism was that you should tax the rich more leniently, as that would attract/create more rich people, that would in turn create more ‘trickle down’ wealth as they spend money. In turn that would mean more business, and more jobs. The theory was that the poorer in society would be ‘dragged up’ toward the rich.
This was used, in essence, as an excuse to do what the Conservatives had always done: protect the wealthy.
When the 80’s and most of the 90’s had come and gone, the central promise of Thatcherism had spectacularly failed. Generous rules for the rich hadn’t done anything but make them richer: their extra wealth stayed in bank accounts, or bought luxury items like diamonds rather than being spent in society to create more jobs. The theory had failed, and Conservatism was outdated.
This pessimism about Conservatism remained even though Blair had compromised on traditional Labour values in order to win the 1997 election – this was the definition of ‘New Labour’, which championed a middle ground between Conservatism and Labour values. There was great hope that society would turn more left and further against Conservatism, now that it had been liberated.
During the 00’s, though, the Conservatives were handed a huge break, and had the resources to take advantage. The economic collapse, primarily caused by forces out-with the UK, was ruthlessly and dishonestly exploited. They had the right spin doctors at the right time, and managed to convince the press that it was the Labour economic policy – spending and taxing the rich – that had caused the crash. Economists the world over laughed at the clear arrogance of the UK: a country nowhere near big enough to cause a global crash, yet the Conservatives spun it just right here. Before Conservatism could be consigned to history, it had created new relevance.
As Blair resigned, and his successor Gordon Brown was deemed weak and unreliable (he was the chancellor, in charge of New Labour economics), it combined with the economic collapse, and a more sympathetic, environmentally aware and PR-styled leader in Cameron, to create the end of New Labour. The Conservatives still failed to gain an electoral majority – showing that even the luckiest of events could not gain them the appeal they used to enjoy – but a coalition with the Liberal Democrats bought them to power.
The next election – 2015 – shocked everyone, in a variety of ways. Not only did the Conservatives manage to get a slim majority this time, but it primarily came about because voters had changed. But it wasn’t a change back to Conservatism; people had, instead become anti-politics in a way which had benefited the Conservatives. Many Labour supporters shunned Labour them in favour of the ‘outsider’ party of UKIP, losing them countless seats in England where they may have won back Conservative seats. Similarly, again, the Labour leader was seen as weak, whilst the Conservatives already had the prime ministerial leader. Conservatives lost support to the smaller parties too, but it seemed that many more had migrated from Labour. Similarly, in Scotland, the SNP had the same effect on a much grander scale, reducing Labour from a controlling interest to a single MP.
Conservatives, as they have always done, talk up their professionalism and how the public prefer them. But that’s clearly not the full story. The strange thing is that even many Labour MP’s are talking up the risk of Labour not returning to Conservative-esque policies. They almost seem sold on the Conservative’s own spin, when in actual fact nothing since the 1980’s has indicated that the public is sold on Conservatism.
The reason for this lack of relevance, arguably, is that society tends toward the more rational. Conservatism may have worked before the poor were allowed a vote, and it may also have worked for leaders like Thatcher, Major and now Cameron, who duped people into voting for policies which only genuinely benefit the rich. They have used scare-mongering, deceptive theories about ‘trickle down wealth’ and famously garnered the votes of people who want to be, but may never become, rich (‘aspirational’ voters). It also helps that influential people – celebrities and the media – are also often rich, so champion the kind of causes that Conservatism does.
But so long as society does tend toward the rational, this can’t go on forever. Thatcherite economic theory died a slow death, and Conservatism got lucky with a revival after an economic collapse. But the last election showed a real rejection of mainstream politics: not just Conservatism, but also New Labour, which had been so similar. People had painted Labour and Conservativism as two sides of the same coin, and both suffered.
As a result, over the last few weeks, we may have seen the next chapter – the final chapter – in the story of Conservatism. As Labour leader Ed Milliband resigned after losing the election, and the new candidates for leader began to gather support, some in the party saw that they needed something fresh. The current crop of candidates were being judged by the public as the ‘same old’; Burnham and Cooper having served with Milliband, Kendall (and, back then, Umunna) seen as New Labour loyalists.
A campaign began among the grass roots support to see rebel backbench Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn – a 66 year old anti-establishment and campaigning veteran – nominated as a candidate. The campaign managed to persuade him, and then garnered enough support from MP’s who could nominate him. Many did so primarily to ‘open debate’ and had no intention of seeing him become leader.
Corbyn’s campaign gathered pace, as did the grass roots support for the Labour party, like it has never seen before. As soon as Corbyn was nominated, senior Tories began to create humour out of it: some claiming that they could pay £3 to register as a Labour supporter, just to vote for Corbyn, as it would stop the Labour party ever being electable again.
Corbyn amassed support, visiting packed rallies up and down the country, swelling the membership of the Labour party to double what it had been before. Labour has always opposed Conservatism, but Corbyn was making it clear he was a break from normal Labour, too: he opposed not just this government, but the very core values and theory of Conservativism. He was anti-austerity, not ‘austerity-light’, which he labelled previous Labour policy. Similarly, he wanted to do popular policies which, until then, no-one else had mentioned: re-nationalising the railways, not indulging in personality attacks, changing the political system to be about respect and debate, and actually taking on powerful business interests rather than trying to gain their support. His refusal to respond to constant character attacks – from Tories and Labour alike – cemented his reputation as principled.
The turning point for many – when Corbyn went from being the outside shot at a Labour leader to the potential visionary of a Conservative downfall – was when the Tories, well-informed as ever, spotted the danger. Very quickly the mood among Tories changed from humour to worry, as they began attacking Corbyn as ‘dangerous’ for UK security and the economy. There is no better sign of a danger to the Tories than a Tory offense against it: they have, since losing that election in 1997, been ultra-concerned about what the voters are thinking, and they will likely know the public is turning before the public even realises.
A bright sunny September morning gave way to an eruption of cheers as Corbyn was elected Labour leader, yesterday. The New Labour stalwarts were offended that their warnings about Corbyn went unheeded, and less than 24 hours later, a number have already refused to work with Corbyn in a shadow cabinet. Similarly, within hours of the result, Conservative spin was out: and not just Conservative advisers, but the cabinet themselves. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon claimed Labour are now a “risk to Britain’s national and economic security.” The prime-minister, no less, tweeted the same thing.
This is not the start of your usual Tory political games – rubbishing someone’s personality, or mocking their eating habits – this is a party fighting for its life, bringing out its biggest guns, immediately aiming at what could cause its downfall.
Why? Whilst Labour lost the last election convincingly, that all changes once you add that Labour support to the support of many who voted UKIP or SNP. Not to mention the Greens: just 2984 Green voters in key areas would have avoided a Conservative majority in this election. When you add that to the now potential gains in votes from UKIP and the SNP, suddenly Labour’s only electoral enemy is the naturally declining Tories. The splitting of the vote among the Tories’ competitors – which has so often tactically helped them cling to power and relevance – may now have disappeared.
And, remember, the Tories might spin that Labour values don’t appeal to the public, but it is Conservatism for which there is no evidence of appeal anymore. People seem to be migrating to an anti-politics opinion, and Labour have now hoovered up that vote. Tories came to power not only on the back of a coalition, followed by a slim majority, but also due to a lot of luck, media conglomerate support, and the rise of UKIP and the SNP decimating Labour. In one fell swoop, yesterday, Labour seems to have bypassed it’s biggest problems.
And, finally, unlike previous Labour leaders, Corbyn will have a freedom to attack the very values of Conservatism. Previous leaders – Blair, Brown, and even the left leaning Milliband – have felt afraid to do so, not just for the media support of the rich conglomerates, but because they were basing some immigration and economic policies on Tory values as a tactical matter. Corbyn has done the opposite, and positioned himself as the respectable individual who wont get involved in mud-slinging matches, but who also entirely opposes Conservatism. It hands him the upper hand with which to argue against Conservative values, in a society where Conservative values are arguably declining, historically, anyway.
The Tories are worried, and for good reason: they are an old party with no natural relevance in the age of social media, they can’t stay popular forever. Labour seem to have spent the last decade or so misjudging the public opinion on Conservatism, wrongly assuming a public desire to vote away their own interests. But even if the Conservatives cling on again at the next election – waging a war of personal attacks and media influence in order to spin another slim majority or coalition – we may finally have seen the blue touch paper lit under Conservatism. Even if Labour MPs had to be strong-armed into it! You may not agree with Corbyn’s policies – I’m sceptical about a lot of them, actually – but the long term downfall of Conservatism is, above all else, worth supporting.
Just as the proponents of New Labour – from Kendall to Blair – have spent the last few months trying to persuade the public that Corbyn is a danger, the Conservatives will spend the next four years doing the same. But defeating Corbyn will be a lot easier than the inevitable movement he will spawn. The Conservatives will be making a mistake if they think this is about Corbyn himself, and they’ve already begun to make it.
We are led to believe that Corbyn was reluctant about standing as a candidate for the leadership. A 66 year old who has used his position to champion causes he believes in, for decades, never toeing the party line when he thought it wrong. A veteran who has never shown political ambition for power or influence, instead preferring to do what he believes is right. It’s hard to believe that he was persuaded to stand based on promises of leadership, or of being prime minister. More likely, he became convinced of the above: he can lead the charge against Conservatism, appearing at the right time to take advantage of anti-politics feeling, and Conservatives will be forced to attack him as the figurehead, powerless to stop an accelerating change in public opinion. Perhaps the great political manoeuvre of our time.