A reply to Dan Hodges: why it’s not surprising some Tories aren’t bothered about winning in 2015

by Stephen Tall on March 29, 2013

dan hodgesThe Telegraph’s token Labour blogger Dan Hodges has a typically punchy post today – Do the Tories actually want to win in 2015? – highlighting the fatalism of some Tory MPs who think victory next time is possible but not worth it:

Hardly worth it? What, just managing to scrape a win at the next election, just managing to govern for another five years, just managing to drive through your agenda on health care reform, welfare reform, education reform, etc?

The Conservative Party is currently in the middle of the biggest sulk in British political history. “It’s not fair, we didn’t win the election, and you told us we would win the election, and you only had that Gordon Brown to beat, and he’s rubbish, and now we can’t do what we wanted to do, so we’re not getting out of bed!”

I genuinely don’t understand it. The Tories spent 13 years in the political wilderness. Okay, it wasn’t quite as long as Labour’s post 1979 exile, but it was still their longest period out of power since the passing of the Representation of the People Act. Then they finally get the keys to No. 10, and just over two-and-a-half years later they’re stomping around the place like a group of stroppy teenagers.

Dan is right: but only up to a point.

A large chunk of Tory MPs do seem to prefer the purity of opposition to the compromise of being in power. The Spectator reports that 25 of them have already submitted no-confidence letters, over half the required number to trigger a leadership ballot which could putsch David Cameron out of Downing Street. He would, presumably, be replaced by an even righter-wing Cornerstoner, a Tory version of Michael Foot but probably with less electoral appeal. For those of us on the outside looking in their behaviour is quite remarkable. As Alex Massie recently reminded the Tories:

Despite what some people might have you believe I can assure you that the general public does not in fact consider this a left-wing government. This Conservative government is actually perceived as being pretty right-wing. The people may be wrong but that’s what they think.

So why do I think Dan Hodges in only part-right?

Because he’s adopted the very Blairite tendency (which also used to be the definition of Conservatism) to assume that the simple act of occupation of power by your tribe should be good enough to keep the tribe-members happy. It’s a logical assumption: not only do you deprive your opponents of office, you get to do a few things that you want, too. Who could possibly object? Only the obsessives, surely?

It’s that logic which has kept the Lib Dems united — by and large: more so the parliamentary party than the wider membership — since May 2010. The liberal temperament is different, of course: we’re pluralists, mostly moderates, default compromisers. Yet still the party has shed members: up to one-third have resigned or lapsed in the last three years.

And if even we, the true believers in let’s-all-work-together-in-the-national-interest-guys politics, baulk at the demands made on us in the name of Coalition how surprising is it that Conservatives, who never dreamt they would have to make concessions to us muesli-chomping sandal-wearers, are in umbrage?

The old political tribes are fragmenting. There are barely 350,000 card-carrying members of the main three parties today: Labour c.190,000 members, the Tories c.130,000, and the Lib Dems c.40,000. That’s one-tenth of what it was in the 1950s in the old and certain days of two-party politics. The nucleus that remain as dues-paying members today are disproportionately the most zealous, the most convinced; it’s unsurprising they’re finding it hard to come to terms with the politics of compromise, the new normal.

Dan’s Labour party would have experienced the same pains of sharing power as the Tories are currently suffering. Frustration: that’s what happens when ideologues bump up against the realisation their ideology doesn’t command majority support. And frustration is never a constructive catalyst. It’s usually irrational — and that’s just how the Tory party is reacting.

A rational Tory party (indeed, a rational Labour party) would recognise that the old tribal certainties are, if not completely gone, then definitely on their way out. Power in the future, domestically and internationally, depends on being able to build alliances, to create alignments.

In short: political leaders will need maximum flexibility at exactly the same time as their parties are becoming more rigid and un-yielding. In those circumstances, it’s not just the Tory party which will be understandably apprehensive about winning.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.