The new populism: are the Tories next?

For many long-term members, it has not been the happiest of times to be in Labour. Blairites, Brownites, those on the old right and on the soft left – people who once felt themselves to be in the mainstream of the party - have been left disorientated in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory.  Some of those hitherto of the fringe of the party now run the show, their authority buttressed by a surge of new members and supporters.

These new or returning recruits should not be viewed as a homogenous bloc, but they are changing the character of Labour movement, shifting its centre of gravity firmly to the left and enabling its new leaders to prioritise social protest over electoral outcomes. More ominously their ranks include extremists who are staining Labour’s reputation for racial equality.

Within a domestic context the transformation wrought on Labour is seen as unprecedented. However, against the European and international backdrop, it is rather familiar. Economic and cultural pressures on the margins of western societies have fundamentally altered the bases of established political parties. In the US, a mix of blue-collar and nationalist voters have poured into the Republican Party, calling into question its conservative ethos. In places like Spain, an exodus of supporters from parties such as PSOE to those like Podemos leaves the former more dependent on traditionalist voters in an environment where they might otherwise choose a more radical path.

For much of the past year, Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has looked across at Labour with a blend of bemusement and glee. Until recently Tory strategists were dreaming of at least another decade in power and the prospect of ‘manspreading’ the political spectrum – holding the right while stretching out to the centre with no competition. But the EU referendum has put those ambitions on hold, denting perceptions of the Conservatives as a united force and distracting the party from bread-and-butter concerns at a time when the British economy is entering tougher headwinds.

Even more seriously for the Tories, the referendum campaign is throwing up signs that they too could find themselves buffeted by the gusts of populism. Class politics witnessed in Labour and Republican ranks is now being deployed by pro-Brexit Tories, some of whom bash pro-EU corporations they might otherwise be expected to make common cause with and brand their Remain counterparts establishment careerists. This has found a ready audience among Conservative members, whose attitudes to pro-Remain ministers appear to have plunged dramatically since the Prime Minister’s renegotiation concluded.

The state of the membership – which will decide the next Tory leader - should also prompt worries for Conservatives who fear the march of populism. It is increasingly shrinking and ageing, something that forced the party to rely on the controversial Mark Clarke to rustle up activists at the last election. A small, introspective membership angry about the handling of the EU referendum could easily leave the party saddled with a successor to David Cameron who plays to their concerns rather than those of the country.

Alternatively – and perhaps more disturbingly for mainstream Conservatives – a party with a small, declining membership is vulnerable to the sudden influx of new recruits both Labour and the Republican parties have witnessed in the past year. Such influxes usually require a major political phenomenon to drive people towards (or back to) a party. Unhappily for the Conservatives, that is just what a closeish vote to remain or a vote to leave could constitute. Either would pose an existential challenge to UKIP while making pro-Brexit Conservative politicians very attractive figures for members of the anti-EU party.  Would one of these politicians follow the model of Jeremy Corbyn or Donald Trump and willingly pull UKIPers towards David Cameron’s party?

Again unhappily for the Conservatives, there is evidence some of the Tory big beasts in favour of Brexit are doing just that. When blended with hardline rhetoric on terrorism and migration, Iain Duncan-Smith’s newfound compassion on welfare has more than a whiff of Trumpsim about it.  So often written off as an opportunistic buffoon, Boris Johnson has been subtly building a populist platform in recent months, scarpering away from the single market, distancing himself from the City of London, attacking freedom of movement and adopting a Farageist tone on foreign policy. Polling suggests UKIP voters are responding in droves.

One bright spot for the Conservatives is that there are plenty in their ranks determined to keep their party in the political centre. In their different ways, David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May are not giving up their modernising project without a ferocious fight. But they will need help. The onus is on mainstream Conservatives who have signed up to Brexit - Michael Gove and Michael Howard, for instance – to make their blue lines clear. Otherwise to echo the words of Labour’s great moderate Ernset Bevin, they may find that opening a Pandora's Box releases many a Trojan Horse.

Photograph: Andrew Parsons


Larry Smith

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search