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Artillery Row

No excuses for the Right

There is a way, if there is will

In a recent Critic article, Mike Jones posed a question which is surely nagging at every Tory member as this dismal leadership contest unfolds: “why can Conservatives win elections but yet seem to accomplish anything terribly conservative with their victories?”

The Party has been in power, in one form or another, for almost as long as was New Labour. Yet there is no night-and-day contrast between the UK’s of 2022 and 2010, as there was between that of 2010 and 1997 — or indeed 1997 and 1979.

With the exception of Brexit, a major change whose impacts for good or ill will play out slowly over the coming decades, the Conservatives have delivered little by way of structural change. The school reform agenda stalled when Michael Gove was deposed as Education Secretary; the challenge of Scottish and Irish separatism has been met not with a coherent Union strategy but a fitful churn of policy and personnel.

The Tory right is just, in the main, shit at politics

According to Jones, the root of all this is the structure of British politics and how the right organises within it. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that the very institution of the Conservative Party, and the parliamentary and electoral structure which necessitates and supports it, are holding back right-wing politics.

I think this is a mistake. Commendable as is the instinct to seek a structural explanation, in this case it feels like a way to avoid facing up to a more prosaic and much less comforting alternative: that the Tory right is just, in the main, shit at politics.

Much of Jones’ article actually bears out this thesis. For example, there are no obvious structural impediments to setting up a new ecosystem of rightist think-tanks and campaigning organisations, if the will and the money were there. That neither seems to be present in sufficient quantities can’t really be blamed on Parliament.

It’s the same story with donors. Even in a hypothetical PR system, a smaller and more tightly-focused right-wing party or parties would need their operations funded. If that funding currently exists, it could be just as usefully (it not more usefully, as I’ll argue) directed towards organising within the current Conservative Party. If it doesn’t exist, then complaints about “donorism” are howling into the wind.

On organisation, it isn’t obvious why we should treat the European Research Group as “the exception which proves the rule”, as opposed to the exception which demonstrates what is possible and thus exposes and indicts the Right’s failure to achieve it in other spheres. Is it the system’s fault if Tory MPs care enough about Europe to mobilise into a coherent and effective parliamentary caucus, but not (yet) about the Union, or housing, or energy security?

The example of the ERG proves they could do it. They simply have not done it. The only essential ingredient is sufficient commitment to the cause to be prepared to vote and whip as a caucus. Nice-to-haves include good leadership and, as mentioned above, money for staff and research.

These are the same raw materials a separate right-wing party would need. But they can be used much more effectively inside the Conservative Party than without it. The organisational reality of the Party is a source of huge potential strength to the Right which simply could not be replicated in another system.

If this seems counter-intuitive, consider the recent example of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. This is a controversial piece of legislation that cuts across the work of the previous government, and those Tories who walked straight into Brussels’ trap over the Irish border. Theresa May, the architect of that disaster, lambasted it in the House of Commons.

Setting up self-indulgent small parties is not a recipe for change

But she didn’t vote against it. Nor did any of the other MPs who feel as she does. This fits into a broader pattern of the past few years, one which is crucial to understanding the value of the institutional Conservative Party to organised right-wing politics.

A politician is, like anyone else, what they do every day. Being MPs for the same party means voting the same way most of the time, on the vast amounts of technical legislation which aren’t the object of ideological disputes. This habituates MPs to loyalty and cooperation across the broad family of the parliamentary right, which is as Jones says basically monopolised by the Tories.

This habit can be unlearned to great effect, as the recent history of the ERG proves. But breaking that habit and building a parallel organisation would take both a very strong ideological commitment and a long time. For the most part, the great bulk of Conservative MPs are prepared to rally around the programme of the leadership, provided that leadership is strong and competent.

That the broad-church Party attracts liberals is a feature, not a bug. There is scant reason to think such people would not be returned to Parliament regardless. But being inside the tent means they are disposed to vote with the Right far more often than if they were with another party, both because of the hard power of the whips and the soft-power reality that being an MP for a party means being socialised as a part of the tribe.

When Margaret Thatcher won the Conservative leadership in 1975, she didn’t immediately deliver a new and ideologically-sympathetic parliamentary party. Yet the Wets were hardly a fatal impediment to delivering her agenda. Had she needed to formally negotiate with them as a separate party, they might well have been.

Yes, this system tends to deprive smaller parties of breathing room. But this can be overstated: UKIP secured a healthy number of second-place finishes in 2015, and had David Cameron not granted a referendum would almost certainly have become a much more serious presence in Parliament after a 2020 election.

Does anyone think that such a force would have been more effective than what we got, which was a Conservative Party first committed to a referendum and then, after a change in leadership impelled by the outcome, committed to delivering the result?

A well-organised Right, with sufficient resources and actual ideas, could win control of the Conservative Party much more easily than it could cobble together, let alone lead, a post hoc coalition in a PR parliament. It could then wield the power of the leadership over the party, and the party in the Commons, to drive transformational change.

If the Right lacks the will, ideas, resources and organisation to make that happen, shifting towards a system where they can set up self-indulgent small parties is not a recipe for changing that.

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