There’s an evolutionary reading of the Tory predicament. Theresa May is mortally wounded but, like their very own Sir Gregor Clegane, the Tories’ calculating necromancy ensures she lurches on. In normal times, Mrs. May would have already been cut down by the (Orange)Men in Grey Suits. The nation would now be fidgeting through a Tory Blind Date special in which the divider pulls back to reveal Clive Barker’s Cenobites.
That this hasn’t happened betrays the Tory palsy. True: Johnson, Gove, Davis, and the others are all doubtless waiting for someone else to lead the first, customarily doomed, charge but -in some deep vault of their psyche – each must know that they’re the electoral equivalent of the rehashed Are You Being Served?
How did the fridge end up with only a few manky vegetables in the drawer? Arguably, the Tories have been terminal for 20 years but, like a dying Godzilla temporarily wedged between two skyscrapers, our absurd electoral system has kept them on their feet and still able to stamp on the sick and piss on the poor. Yet two factors that have worked in their favour have also contributed to their torpor.
The first is the curse of New Labour. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘greatest achievement’ pitched its tents on the Tories’ village green for thirteen years. This showed in voter (dis)engagement, with overall turnout dropping from 1992 on. The previously bemoaned low youth vote, for instance, is not an immutable historical reality, having declined only since then. In 1997, it fell from 66% to 56% and had dropped to 38% by 2005. The idea that the young might be apathetic or content was belied by the ‘Cleggmania’ of 2010, which lifted turnout to 49%, but that bubble was burst by a single prick. Only 43% voted in 2015.
From 1994 to 2005, the Tories were forced from their lands into the wilderness and, despite proffering a parade of alternately comical, bewildered or sinister leaders, without a distinctive prospectus they enthused no one. Finally, in 2005, having mixed a lock of Tony Blair’s hair with a chalice of deflowered pig’s blood, they were able to shamble into office only thanks to an exhausted New Labour and a crutch of LibDems.
By 2015, Labour (their ‘New’ worn off) was still scrambling around for a brand; needing to adapt, but hampered by the dead weight of their necrotic Blairite carapace. A feeble manifesto presented by a decent but toothless Miliband raised Labour’s vote just 1.5% (to 30.4%) but FPTP…FFS cost them 26 seats. The Tories advanced a whopping 0.8% (to 36.9%) but won a majority of twelve (while consigning Faust to the flames).
After pulling UKIP’s teeth with the Brexit referendum, the Tories were without a predator and grew dull and complacent as a result. Meanwhile, Labour painfully and messily adapted. In summer 2015, Blairite condescension inadvertently enabled a beneficial atavism as their socialist DNA reasserted itself. The Party might still have been dragging round the half-shed skin and withered limbs of New Labour but beneath was vital, exciting new growth.
The second factor has undoubtedly been the benign media environment. Much as it likes to portray itself as a dogged fourth estate, the media is institutionally a sub-department of business. A largely compliant press promotes a (big) business-friendly environment, which allows fierce debate within acceptable bounds but keeps certain topics largely beneath the visible spectrum or at least absurdly distorted (the Anglo-Saudi war on Yemen, for instance). None of this requires active conspiracy -journalists are seldom told what to think or what to write, they just (with a few exceptions) wouldn’t be mainstream journalists if they thought or wrote anything different. This is not so controversial, even Media Guido, when criticising George Osborne’s elevation to Evening Standard editor, observed that ‘[e]ditors have to keep advertisers sweet. Big business has [them] over a barrel’. And Osborne’s new position examples the cosiness of the Westminster village: journalists and politicians eat, drink, fuck, and live together and the door between the two professions does not merely revolve, it spins.
This is compounded by media training that conditions politicians to deliver a message rather than engage in debate (often literally refusing to debate their opposite numbers). We’ve seen this for years now; that the first question of a political interview is almost irrelevant, given the planned monologue that has replaced the first answer. May’s toe-curling duckspeak was not novel, merely this trend ad absurdum. Politicians were used to rudeness, combativeness even, but only as one is when playing an organised team game. No wonder politicians seem to fear, above all else, the unscripted questions of the public. It’s not that we plebs are all well-briefed inquisitors, it’s simply that we’ve not had the journalistic training required to not ask the difficult questions. Little wonder politicans were ill-equipped and unwilling to debate Corbyn and defend political choices they’d spent thirty years casting as physical laws.
These two factors, a lack of competition and stagnant media environment, have resulted in a flabby, ideologically moribund Tory Party that is not only unfit to govern but unfit to campaign. And, neglecting properly to sell itself, its mask has slipped. People can see more clearly than ever that the job of the Conservative Party is not to represent the interests of the people but to represent the interests of capital to the people.
June 2017 has been the peak (so far) of these trends: an election called not out of need but out of greed. The Tories thought themselves impregnable, that a carefully stacked deck of marginal constituencies and two years of unrelenting and near universal media hostility toward Corbyn had left them with nothing to do but drive pensioners to the polling booth. The result was a ‘campaign’ that could scarcely hide its laziness and contempt for the electorate, fronted by a cryogenic domina who appeared almost to wretch when questioned. The throwaway manifesto, the absurd non-answers to questions, the refusal to debate, the arid visitations to speech at apathetic knots of closely-surveilled factory workers; the dim persistence in making it all about Corbyn even when that clearly wasn’t working, all betrayed a Party that felt itself above the need to grub votes. Yes, they reabsorbed their UKIP contingent (as did Labour) but they put on votes only by consolidating the right, not by converting anybody to their cause.
Labour had a radically different offer and an enthused grassroots campaign in Momentum. They also had a vital window, created by election broadcasting rules, to present themselves to the electorate without some of the media’s usual funfair mirrors. Crucially, in Corbyn, they had a leader who knew how to campaign. Here is a man who had spent thirty years in the margin, having to argue every point, fight for unpopular causes, persuade, and scrabble for every inch of ground. He’s spent two years fighting the Tories, the media, most of his parliamentary party, and J. K. Rowling.
True, he was bitten by Trident and his Woman’s Hour felt more like a year but his natural temperament and his years as an old-school political streetfighter, tempered by the two year firestorm of his leadership, meant he stepped in the ring fitter and more agile than May. He exploited the poor Tory campaign and May’s frosty persona, and mobilised an energised youth vote who WhatsApp and Facebook beyond the distant crump of tabloid shells.
Labour did not win the battle but they’re in sight of their target and the enemy’s ears are still ringing. In fact, Labour arguably would be even further ahead if not for their own understandable lack of ambition in a number of marginal seats that we now see they could have won but didn’t think to target. Labour have consolidated the left and called-up an important, if so far insufficient and untested, column of the young.
The Tories are now in office but scarcely in power. Years of a congenial environment and no competition have left them ill-equipped to adapt to Corbynism. Evolution is a slow process, it can only work with what is already there. Hence the Tories cannot suddenly grow an exciting new leader to take on Corbyn. Until a novel mutation comes along, they are stuck with the same vestigial appendages.
The least harrowing of the contenders, ‘Spreadsheet Phil,’ is considerably less exciting that his soubriquet suggests. Michael Gove is like the apparition of a sailor-suited Victorian child murdered in his bath, while Amber Rudd would have made a fine villain in the Sarah Jane Adventures. Their most likely prospect, Boris Johnson, calls to mind what might happen were the Honey Monster’s career to fall into the bottom of the whisky bottle. None of these candidates is likely to win anything more than grudging support from people who would never think of voting Labour anyway. David Davis will never read Shelley at Glastonbury, Liam Fox will never open for the Libertines, and there will be no chants of “Oh, An-drea Lead-som”. One of them will have to wear the toy crown but being forced by poor planning to pull on the least odorous option from the laundry basket shouldn’t occasion triumphalism.
Only the most blinkered would deny that, agree with him or not, Corbyn has shown the most extraordinary resolve and courage during the most vicious onslaught directed against any politician in memory. He stood at the Despatch Box week after week, facing screaming derision in front and, at best, baleful silence from behind. May collapsed like a soufflé after a couple of weeks of having to campaign against him, even with the press’s guns ranged behind her. Corbyn has forced the Tories into a minority with one hand tied behind a back studded with knives. The Labour Party is adapting and growing and its leader is fit for the fight ahead.