The most successful right of centre political parties in the world don’t actually exist.
There’s no German Conservative party. There’s no Australian Conservative party. In France, there sometimes is, sometimes isn’t. In Canada, there are lots, some at provincial level, one at national.
The difference between these and the British Conservative party? The “successful competitors” of the Right – whether the Liberal-Nationals in Australia, the CSU/CDU in Germany, the Canadian right-wing progressive conservative parties1, or (less successfully), the RPR-UMP in France, are identifiably different political traditions and movements locked into a stable, near-permanent electoral alliances.
Why couldn’t the right in Britain do something similar?
After all, the most successful periods in Conservative electoral history have been when they have moved into this territory, usually by infusing Liberal unionist, national and centrists of various stripes into the Tory ranks.
I was struck by this thought by reading Tom Chivers in the Telegraph today. Apropos of Gay marriage, Chivers says:
“if the Conservative Party isn’t rewarded for making positive moves, it will have no incentive to make them in future. More than that, the centrist, liberal direction taken by the party elite will be jeopardised:”
He’s right of course. The reason the Tory party is divided over this is that it is trying to please two constituencies – a socially conservative one, and a (more or less) metropolitan liberal one. Chivers’ point is that metropolitan liberals better reward the Tories for trying to please them, or the Tories will stop trying to do so.
So I’ve some good news for Tom: if they do that, it’s a one way ticket to the Tories being the natural party of grumpy opposition, so it won’t really matter what they do, just as it only really mattered what Tony Benn thought in the Eighties if you wanted to write intriguing political fiction set in an alternate universe. If the Tories adopt that strategy, the vision of the future will be Stewart Wood‘s boot, stamping on a face, forever, and a jolly good thing too.
That’s all Tea and cucumber sandwiches to the likes of me, of course. I’m less sure why the Tories should embrace it. Their basic political problem is this. The bit of the party that wants to bang on about cycling maidens and country churches is pretty much unreconciled to the bit of the party that wants to be thrusting young metropolitan bucks. What’s more, while the latter group could easily appeal to the emerging metropolitan and suburban liberal middle-upper income voters, the Country party are literally repulsive to them. The Tories can’t be the party of thick rimmed glasses, patterned shirts and designer jeans and comfortable cords and classic worsted.
So they should stop trying. Split the party in two, say the “Progressive Conservatives” and the “National party”, but lock yourselves into a permanent electoral alliance for General Elections called the “Progressive National Conservatives”.
Each party could have its own national party and membership, and would agree which seats they would fight with candidates from which party, much as the SDP and Liberals did, with the proviso that no sitting MP from one should be challenged by a candidate from the other party. (That means Liz Truss is safe from the Turnip Taliban). Each party would have its own national organisation and membership and would be heavily guided in making local electoral deals. However, they might stand against each other in list elections, like the MEP elections and the Scottish and Welsh elections, if it makes sense.
This would likely mean that where the Tories are currently less popular than a bad smell, they would become a new party, free of their old associations and prejudices, free to be pro-business, socially liberal funky Tories with pictures of Steve Hilton on the wall, sitting around reading GQ and trying to look like Dylan Jones as they go to gay weddings, while the Rees-Mogg Fraktion can nestle comfortably in country churches, making passionate arguments about the book of common prayer.
What’s more, while the Progressive Tories will likely be the smaller party in the short-term, they’ll be disproportionately represented among the leadership, which will mean two things.
First, they’ll have a real urgency about winning more seats and recruiting more members, most likely among the rising suburban white-collar workers. They’d be well advised to care a lot about car duties, be hostile to unions, be pro childcare, good schools but low tax generally. While they’ll be socially liberal they need to be more than just metropolitan.
Second, they will be essential to any right-of centre government, so that if the Country party decides to go crazy, there will always be the never-stated threat of doing a deal with the Liberals instead, and consigning the Country party to permanent opposition with no hope of reprieve.
So Tories, if you want the vote of rimmed glasses Britain, of people like Tom Chivers, split up.
Then they can vote for you, because they won’t be voting for all of you.
- the history of the right in Canadian politics is incredibly fraught, but the provincial progressive Conservatives and the Alberta Wild rose party now allow a degree of differentiation by region that helps both them and the Federal Conservatives, or so it looks from London, England [↩]