A simple question haunts politics: after everything this country has experienced over the last year, and in the midst of controversies that seem to flare up on a weekly basis, how is it possible that the Tories have ended up in such a commanding political position?
Over the last week or so, the awful spectacle of NHS staff facing a real-terms pay cut has been made only more glaring by the mountains of money we now know have been frittered away on a dysfunctional test-and-trace system. But will even this scandal really change anything? A recent YouGov poll put the Conservatives 13 points ahead of Labour. May’s local elections do not look likely to see any kind of significant turnabout. To quote the radio host James O’Brien: “Their complete failure to protect us from huge, real, fatal problems seems not to matter.”
Anti-Tory optimists may reply that in politics things that ought to matter sometimes fester away for months or years before, finally, they matter a lot. Others will focus on the vaccine rollout, and pin the Conservatives’ sudden spurt in popularity to the one Covid-related thing the government has got right. There are plenty of theories about the prime minister’s simple luck and the concept of “Teflon Boris”. But there is another point to be made, about the deep and complicated reasons people tend to back particular parties, and the state of British politics in 2021.
Journalists and politicians tend to place great significance on policies, announcements and supposed successes and failures at the top. But such things are usually less relevant to the question of whom people vote for than fuzzy, emotional factors: feelings of belonging, shared values and whether or not politicians reflect people’s idealised sense of who they are. And at the moment, it seems like these things may be feeding into a fascinating realignment evident in each of the three countries of Great Britain.
If traditional class politics has finally faded away, what has replaced it? In England, Scotland and Wales, could it be the rise of specifically national politics based around one dominant party that embodies enough of a sense of optimism and collective identity to set the agenda, while its adversaries fight over whatever is left?
That seems to be the case in Scotland – where, though there may be signs that the toxic feud between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond is slightly weakening the SNP’s grip on politics, its dominant position is hardly under threat. In Wales, though the Labour party is not in nearly as strong a position, its foundations in that country’s most populous areas and its talent for speaking in a gently nationalistic voice have ensured that its place at the heart of politics has always been secure.
Which leaves England. Labour may still dominate all of the big English cities, but across the rest of the country such enduring Tory themes as law and order and patriotism, and the party’s apparent embodiment of optimism and opportunity, seem to have fused with Brexit to make the Conservatives even more immovable. The party has won more English votes than Labour in every general election since 2005. In 2019, its vote share in England was 47.2%. From UK-wide statistics, we also know that Labour was backed by 30.6% of low-income voters, but 45.4% supported the Tories.
On that election night, I was in Stoke-on-Trent, where all three parliamentary seats are now blue. Since 2015, it has had a Conservative-led council. And as the votes were being counted in a huge leisure centre, I saw what the local Tories looked like up close: a mixture of white and brown faces, full of confidence and brio, whereas the Labour party seemed tired and forlorn. One of the successful Tory candidates was a teacher at a Birmingham secondary school; another, who kept the seat he had taken from Labour in 2017, was a locally raised 27-year-old called Jack Brereton, who had served as a city councillor. The party had obviously presented itself to local voters as a grassroots force; and, given that 69% of Stoke’s voters had backed Brexit, the Tories’ position on that issue had clinched its sense of populist authenticity. This was a story repeated across England.
Over the next few years, I do not think the Conservatives will spend much time defining themselves against Keir Starmer and his colleagues: there is, after all, not much definition there. Instead, there will be the constant rumbling of what some people will see as a very English culture war. Some of it will be shrill: those new TV channels fixating on anything deemed “woke”, and regular shrieks from MPs and ministers about statues, street names and “heritage”. This stuff, it seems to me, speaks to a small minority of the public. But there is another aspect of how the right characterises its adversaries that is proving more effective: the idea that the left is now privileged, cold, snobbish and judgmental, and far too keen on seeing whole swaths of the electorate as bigoted and stupid, whereas Boris Johnson leads a party that thinks the best of them. Wrapped up in this is a familiar refusal to acknowledge both that racism in this country runs deep and wide, and that Conservatism too often encourages and enables it. But for many people, this crude vision of politics rings true.
The cleverest Conservatives, moreover, will not behave quite as stupidly as some people seem to imagine. They know they are susceptible to accusations of prejudice and nastiness, and there have been striking changes to the face the party presents to the country. The next Tory leadership contest may well be between Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid. While the Conservatives have given Britain two female prime ministers, the Labour party has yet to have even a female leader. These things underline something that should not be underestimated: an increasingly complex relationship with issues of diversity and representation, and a talent for dodging old stereotypes.
Underneath all this, of course, the verities of Tory politics endure. Conservatism is often cruel, cold and surreally incompetent. If it affects to be broad-based, such appearances fail to conceal the interests of wealthy white men; and if it has to stoop to conquer, it rarely holds back.
The Tories’ current winning streak may yet be interrupted by the dire consequences of Brexit, and even the breakup of the United Kingdom, while their weak support among younger voters and black, Asian and minority-ethnic people may eventually be their undoing. But given that the Conservative party has spent much of the last century reinventing itself and craftily riding out huge social changes, no one should expect that to suddenly stop. To understand the present and future of politics, you need to grasp one thing above all others: that if the Tories have indeed become the party of England, it will take an enormous political effort to dislodge them.