Detox...Retox: The Rise and Fall of Conservative Modernisationon 30 April 2015
By Peter Kerr & Richard Hayton
At the recent launch of the Conservative party’s Good Right group, Michael Gove made a forceful plea for the Tories to become ‘warriors of the dispossessed’, a party that speaks up for the ‘vulnerable and the voiceless’. Timed so close to the date of the election, this seemed like an extraordinary statement. It implied, whether wilfully or otherwise, a critical appraisal of the party’s current direction, along with a familiar acknowledgment that the party still needs to detoxify its image if it is to broaden its appeal and regain its electoral dominance. According to Gove, ‘it’s vital that we stress our reason for being in politics is to help others, not to implement an ideological blueprint about the size of the state or defend the interests of the already fortunate.’
Gove’s appeal for the party to reconnect with its commitment to social justice, coupled with the Tories’ seeming inability to command a strong electoral lead, could be taken as evidence of the overall failure of David Cameron’s earlier attempts to decontaminate the party brand and re-orientate it back towards the centre ground. It is now almost ten years since Cameron took over as party leader, having embarked, using similar lines of rhetoric to Gove, on a process of modernisation designed to shift perceptions of the party beyond the ‘nasty-party’ tag. In many ways, Gove’s appeal harks back to that former agenda, and thereby helpfully throws into focus the timely and highly relevant question, whatever happened to Conservative modernisation?
To say that the Conservatives have largely failed to deliver any type of modernisation is perhaps too simplistic. Undoubtedly, since entering government the party has pursued a radical reformist agenda in areas such as public sector reform, immigration control and Britain’s stance on Europe. Much of this could be characterised as ‘modernisation’ of sorts, especially given the inherent vagueness of the term. Yet, this has been a reform agenda which draws much of its inspiration from the right of the party, characterised by a very different tenor than that struck by Cameron in his first couple of years as party leader. For that reason, the majority of commentators will conclude that Conservative modernisation - i.e. of the socially compassionate and environmentally-friendly type outlined by Cameron at the start of his leadership - has either been abandoned altogether or blown wildly off course.
In some ways, this inevitable conclusion is shaped by the fact that Cameron’s early modernising momentum was impressive, and quite different to the direction the Prime Minister has taken the party in office. From 2005-07, he showed considerable leadership skill in symbolically ‘de-toxifying’ the party’s image around themes such as social justice, gender representation, sexuality, the environment and a commitment to public service. But post-2007, the emergence of financial crisis presented a set of conditions with echoes of those encountered by the Thatcher governments when they came to power in 1979. This was always going to test the commitment of the party towards its modernisation drive. It posed the key question of whether the party would revert to type and respond to those conditions in a similar fashion to their Thatcherite predecessors?
The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Since entering government, and in the context of their strong attachment to radical deficit reduction and the politics of austerity, the party has largely taken a consistent, neo-liberal path. Much of the earlier modernising direction around issues of gender, the environment and social justice has been replaced with an often stringent, and generally singular focus on core vote themes such as immigration, Europe and radical welfare and public sector reform. All of these are highly familiar traditional ‘Thatcherite’ themes, employed - with limited success it could be argued - to shore up support on the party’s right flank and prevent party splits and a drift towards UKIP.
But it is too simplistic to push the blame for that failure entirely onto contextual factors such as the financial crisis and the rise of UKIP. Rather, these events only served to throw into relief a number of key fault-lines present within the modernisation strategy from the outset. Foremost amongst these was its ideological incoherence. Cameron’s early direction was always ambiguous, straddling a range of positions including, social liberalism, traditional Toryism and neo-liberalism. As such, his modernising drive was never anchored to a firm ideological mooring and this left his strategy vulnerable to veering rightwards in the face of both external and internal pressures.
Another major problem for Cameron’s modernisation has been his lack of consistent leadership. Whilst he can be credited with demonstrating skilful statecraft - notably in enabling the Conservatives to dominate the Coalition’s agenda and take credit for economic recovery - his leadership on the core themes of his modernisation strategy has been less than impressive. Instead, the Prime Minister has allowed himself to be pulled - often mercilessly at times - by the right of his party into making, what he himself had earlier identified as errors in his predecessors electoral strategies; most notably, ‘banging on’ about Europe, immigration and public sector reform. What all of this tells us about Cameron’s leadership is that, whilst relatively successful at managing the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he has had more limited success in managing the coalition of interests that make up his own party.
All of this has left the party going into this election looking less like ‘warriors of the dispossessed’ and more like the same familiar beast Cameron inherited back in 2005. Looking at the current state of the electoral landscape, it is worth reminding ourselves that Cameron had identified modernisation as an electoral necessity; a strategy that simply couldn’t be sidestepped if the party was to make itself a dominant electoral force again. From our current perspective, it is hard not to conclude that he may have been, at least partially, right.
Image: Conservatives CC BY-NC-ND
This is the last in a series of blogs on Conservative Party modernisation, based on a selection of papers from the forthcoming special issue of British Politics on 'Conservative Modernisation From Opposition to Government'. The issue, which is edited by Peter Kerr, Steve Kettell and Richard Hayton, was the product of the 'Whatever Happened to Conservative Modernisation' workshop event hosted by the University of Leeds in September 2014, and organised jointly by the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Specialist Group and British Politics'.