By its critics and defenders alike, a noted feature of Conservative Party membership is loyalty. Whether it is to the cause of obtaining office for the sons of gentlemen as journalist Peter Hitchens proclaims, or if it’s a dedication of the hardworking voter or member who seriously believes a Conservative government is the best thing for their country. Loyalty is a notable trait of affiliation.
Yet, at a time like this it’s clear that the Conservatives face an unprecedented scale of abandonment that threatens their survival. The annihilation of over 1300 councillors at the local council elections earlier this month was worse than even the harshest polls were predicting. This famed loyalty is evidently running very thin.
If we are to ask why this is happening, an obvious narrative is the fact that Brexit has not happened. The very presence of EU elections is the sign of that clear fact. We remain in the EU, a key democratic result left unimplemented. In a scenario like this it will be easy to argue that Brexit is the sole problem: once we withdraw from EU membership the Conservatives electoral woes will go away.
This, however, while clearly being a key factor, seems to ignore the larger nature of the political landscape of the past decade.
The Conservative Party has based its political survival on sacrifices. In exchange for the chance of power the Conservatives sacrificed certain social and economic principles its supporters had given their loyalty to. In order to defeat New Labour’s grip on parliamentary power, the Conservatives have had to embrace a new ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ under David Cameron and beyond. One in which liberal attitudes to social policy have been embraced — a testament to this fact being that a Conservative government proposed the gay marriage legislation, approved by Parliament in 2013. Not only this, but a more interventionist foreign policy also came into play that matched the approach of New Labour; such as backing Labour’s Iraq War in 2003 and going on to stage its own interventions in Libya and Syria after 2010.
This sacrifice has been politically successful so far but a sacrifice none the less. For example, with the gay marriage legislation over half of Conservative MPs refused to back it, relying on the Opposition for the House of Commons to approve it. In return for such a cost, however, Conservative supporters were getting a Conservative government making the narrative true that the Conservatives were saving them and the rest of the country once again from Labour’s approach to the economy that always fails time and time again. And it was a sacrifice that appeared to be worthwhile, with the economic deficit of Labour being cut in half by 2015, and employment at some of its highest ever levels. It was partially this, arguably, that meant the Conservatives could survive the onslaught from UKIP in 2015, with a stark reminder that a vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour and that we couldn’t hand the keys to the people who crashed the car in the first place.
But even this economic benefit is proving to no longer be enough. Firstly, Brexit has killed off the Conservatives’ upper hand concerning austerity. 2015 made the economy the dominant issue, the mandate on which the Conservatives or Labour would govern. In 2017, the deliverance of Brexit became the reason any of the two parties could claim government. The economy was still important of course, but getting Brexit through was the factor that mattered. Labour hence got away with a full-blooded Marxist economic blueprint — via its promise to fully deliver Brexit, gaining it an increased share of the vote from 2015.
Secondly and even more importantly, even the actual benefits many loyal Conservatives value are being assaulted too. Both foe and particularly friend of the Conservative Party see it as the natural party of business. Low spending, low taxation are a source of pride. However, even this tenet has been assaulted. The tax burden is at its highest levels since 1964. And this source of woe for those wedded to such benefits is set to get worse if the £20bn increase in spending for the NHS is delivered, which the government admits would have to be delivered by tax rises.
Quite simply, it’s idealistic to suggest Brexit fatigue is the only issue harming the Conservative Party. The settlement between liberal Conservatism and party loyalty is losing its value. If it’s to survive, Brexit is merely a stepping stone to getting to the heart of the crisis. What is needed is more radical. A soul-searching process. It will no longer be enough to ask how much its supporters sacrifice to keep the Conservatives governing. Instead, the leadership needs to ask: What can we offer to convince our supporters that the values to which you are wedded are still at the heart of our governance?
I feel two important themes are key.
Firstly, tax cuts. With Labour showing pride in raising taxes to cover large increases in spending and nationalisation, the Conservatives have a clear focus. By cutting the tax burden the Conservatives can stress an important principle. Support for the Conservatives is a vote for keeping more of what you work for. The Conservatives who are keen on taking freedom from the state and putting money into your pocket.
Secondly, a defence of free speech is much needed. In an era where everyone has an opinion but feels like their opinion is being silenced, the Conservatives can propose a theme of unity. That no matter what side of any debate you are on, the Conservatives are here to defend your liberty, of thought and expression. This is a powerful proposal. It reminds everyone your opinion is valid, and that it is your opinion in virtue of the fact that you hold it.
These proposals may just be the start, but a vital one. If radical action is not taken, there may be no future for the Conservative Party at all.