As their message falls apart, are we witnessing the death of the Conservative Party?


The message of the Conservative Party is falling apart, literally: letters ironically fell off the lacklustre slogan chosen for the party conference as Theresa May delivered a woeful speech beset with vocal problems and a coughing fit, topped off with her being handed P45 – a termination of employment notice.

The party seems to be in free fall. Ms May’s days are numbered, the sharks and potential successors have begun to circle with ambitious drive and venom. The walking, talking liability that is Boris Johnson seems to be the front-runner. The irony is that their Brexit victory is tearing the party apart, with a lack of vision and competence in negotiations, lack of understanding and action on the issues of the day they become less trusted every single day. This was meant to be the conference that reminded us of the virtues of market capitalism, but it has only strengthened the consensus that they have never been more out of touch with reality than at present.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party are on the rise. The Labour’s conference was met with a near rock star reception, with queues forming for events, something that would be unthinkable for a Conservative conference. Labour have lead in almost every opinion poll conducted since the snap election. It now looks very plausible that Corbyn could be the next Prime Minister.

These crowds of energised and engaged people who descended upon Labour conference are activists who were disillusioned and angered by three things: the Thatcherite juggernaut of the 1980s, the great New Labour compromise with Thatcherism, and the post-2010 austerity offensive. They crave a political alternative, one that had not been heard in the mainstream for years, and Corbyn has given it to them.

As Labour Party membership soars over 596,500, above Tony Blair levels, the Conservative Party is facing up to fears that its membership will soon fall below 100,000 – Less than the Liberal Democrats.

During the Blair, Brown years, Labour was effectively a centre/centre-right party consigning Britain to having no alternative political argument – Thatcher believed that her greatest achievement was not changing just one party, but two. Labour had caved into the neo-liberal agenda, the market ruled and should have practically no regulation. This was the only way.

The political wisdom of our time has been that unless you accept lower taxes on the rich, offer an ever-expanding role for the private sector, continue aggressive deregulation, and accept a limited role for government and barely any role for trade unions, you are rendered unelectable. The opinion in this country is, however, beginning to shift.

It suits the Tories to think of Corbyn as a historical throwback, a fad from the Seventies creating a temporary stink in Westminster. But in fact, it’s the Tories who have been stuck in the past – clinging to the Eighties, wrongly believing it to be the decade in which socialism was exposed and disproved. They attack Corbyn based on this mindset. But most people do not remember the IRA, or the Winter of Discontent, or care for comparisons to a country such as Venezuela (which they could not even probably locate on a map). The attack line of calling Corbyn a Marxist or Trotskyite does not stick, the days of the red scare are over. People care about housing, health, education and making sure their offspring are happy – they see how the upcoming generation are the first in many to be less well off than their parents.

The Legatum Institute, a free-market think tank, has published a report on just how quickly the ground is shifting. It shows that people favour renationalisation; of the UK’s water (83%), electricity (77%), gas (77%) and railway (76%), that people favour caps on CEO pay, favour higher levels of regulation, favour the abolition of zero hours contracts, and generally have a more favourable view of socialism and a less favourable view of capitalism.

Fire at Grenfell Tower in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The Grenfell Tower tragedy seemed to awaken many to the calamitous impact our current socio-economic system can have, where dozens of working-class people were killed with the blame squarely in the park of a system that prioritises profit not just over people’s needs and aspirations, but even their lives. “It stands for a failed and broken system,” Corbyn declared to rapturous applause at Labour conference, “which Labour must and will replace.”

The Conservatives have a problem with the young, it’s their ticking time bomb – the average age of a Conservative Party member has now hit the heights of 72 says a report by the conservative Bow Group. The survey for the Social Market Foundation (SMF) by Opinium shows it is not just voters in their teens and 20s but also those in their 30s and young middle age who now believe that the Tories do not speak for them. Their experience is of a system that seems rigged against them. Unsurprisingly, capitalism is proving unpopular to those with no capital.

Wages keep on falling, along with productivity and business investment. Home ownership is at its lowest level since 1985, with the reverse in home ownership most obvious among the young – In 2000 20% of those aged 20-39 rented, but by 2025 that figure is projected to rise to 50%. Between 2007 and 2015 real household wages – pay measured against inflation – fell by 10.4% in Britain – more than anywhere in Europe except Greece (where it was the same). More recently, last month saw real wages fall yet again, with inflation at 2.9% but wages increasing by only 2.1%.

Among 18- to 24-year-olds, Opinium found just 15% of voters now say that the Tory party represents “people like me”. This rises to only 20% among those aged 25-34 and 21% among those between 35 and 44. Among these three age groups, the same percentage (76) think the Tories are more on the side of “richer people” than the less wealthy.

The Tories are suffering a sort of ideological crisis. Do they defend the system built by Thatcher, which is rapidly losing public consent, or do they start surrendering to the arguments of their opponents in the hope of perhaps winning over the vote of an ever growing younger generation that they abandoned and now have abandoned them?

May speaks of “fighting injustices”, “fairness for working people” but yet her party has few ideas of how to do this, and seem resigned to suggesting half-baked versions of Labour policies that do not do enough to garner her support from the public in the face of the real alternative. Tokenistic offers of goodwill do not scratch the surface of the problems people presently face. Minor tinkering with tuition fees will not buy student votes. Why would generations raised in an open and diverse society align themselves with a party trying to turn back the clock?

So are the Tories to be consigned to the history books? Unlikely, when the system they defend keeps so many living in a super-rich opulent paradise – too many vested interests are at stake. But with a bundled election in which they lost their majority, a series of U-turns and the abandonment of many of their manifesto promises, and the international laughing stock that is the Tory Brexit negotiating team, the Tories have proven themselves to be anything but “strong and stable”. The public is beginning to realise that the Conservatives cannot be trusted. The public will no longer tolerate the growing crises all around – the NHS, social care, schools, further education, council services, public sector pay, and more. This is clear. The tide is turning.

The recent actions of Boris Johnson, who seems to have the knack of saying precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time, with his clearly misguided ambitions for power might be the final nail in the Conservative Party coffin – for now at least. He leads the race to become the next leader of the party, upon which the party might actually spontaneously combust and gift Labour victory at the next election – which could come sooner rather than later. If it doesn’t, then the Tories are likely to make such a mess of Brexit that they may keep themselves out of power for a generation anyway. Either way, the party is not in a good place.

One former minister says, “there is a smell of decay”, another, that it is “hopeless, but we are resigned to the nightmare”. The Budget is fast turning into the moment of political danger for the government as every problem seems to swept under the carpet until the red briefcase makes its next appearance.

The Conservatives are in a state of chaos. They are a party devoid of direction, policy or purpose, poisoned utterly and completely by Brexit. The idea that the unfettered free market is king and the only viable economic option is losing support: the facade has been exposed as it becomes more and more clear that it is the source of division and hardship in Britain. They are stuck in a rut between ideology and canvassing for votes which seem to be forever slipping further out of reach. They cannot even seem to truly defend capitalism anymore – their argument is all but lost, which means, sooner or later, they will lose power.