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Will Boris save social democracy? The Tory party is going through one of its great evolutionary shifts — and Labour's going to have to change too

Should sensible people vote for Boris? Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

November 29, 2019   5 mins

It is hard to muster enthusiasm for any of the main parties or candidates in this election. Even Boris Johnson, as part of the ‘playing it safe’ campaign, has shown more of his bluster-and-evasion face than his witty and eloquent one.

But for someone like me, a conservative social democrat reconciled to Brexit, there is an interesting paradox at play: to make Britain safe for moderate social democracy, you really have to lend your vote to the flamboyant metropolitan Conservative Boris Johnson (or at least hope he wins convincingly).

The Brahmin Left cannot see this, though, and believes the future for social democratic politics over the next decade is “dire”, as Will Hutton put it in the Observer.

But the logic is plain. If Johnson wins a decent majority, it will only be because a sufficient number of mainly lower income voters in the North and the Midlands has switched from Labour to Tory. If this happens, it will shift the voter base of the Tory party and thus the interests that the party represents.

Of course, the party will still also represent a solid block of the most affluent in the South and elsewhere, but why have the 2017 and 2019 Tory manifestos been so relatively quiet about the free market and tax cuts and so noisy about investing in public services? Brexit has forced the party to seek a new segment of the electorate and, contrary to all the talk of lurching to the Right, this strengthens the hand of One Nation Tories who are happy to see the party becoming more like a cross-class Christian Democratic alliance — minus the confessional attachment.

The party will remain in favour of the market economy and enterprise, but it is no longer going to be the party of small government, because its new voter base wants quite high public spending and plenty of redistribution. As Daniel Finkelstein put it in the Times: “If you win Bassetlaw or Hartlepool, you have to become the party of Bassetlaw and Hartlepool.”

You remain the party of the shires and the affluent suburbs too, and this will no doubt create interesting policy conflicts over the coming years — over housing for example — but the Left’s de-regulatory, small-state caricature of the Tories is going to look increasingly unbelievable.

Apart from getting Brexit done, the only other Johnson slogan that I have noticed, particularly evident at the manifesto launch, is that decent public services and public infrastructure underpin a successful market economy — and isn’t that almost a definition of market-friendly social democracy?

There are, of course, many Conservatives whose economic instinct remains more Thatcherite, and who tend to see the public sector as a sort of necessary evil, but they are a political hangover. And incidentally, although there is still a highly disproportionate number of Tory MPs who were privately educated, the proportion has dropped from 75% in the 1970s to 45% now (and possibly below 40% after the election) — so many more will have been dependent on public services most of their lives. Tory candidates look and sound more like the voters than ever before.

There is a second leg to this story about making Britain safe for moderate social democracy: it is the breaking of the hold of the true-believer socialists who currently control the Labour party. A thumping victory for the new Tory party described above is a necessary condition for that outcome.

This change will not happen swiftly and could entail a more complete break-up of the Labour party than the minor splintering we have seen so far. How swiftly exactly will depend on many imponderables, such as how serious the defeat is, which Labour MPs are left standing, and whether, after a second defeat (and maybe a heavy one this time), the Momentum surge might start to lose momentum. This itself might also depend on the medium term socio-economic fate of what one might call the ‘educated just about managing class’ — people with degrees from non-Russell Group universities who end up in jobs not so different from those of their parents.

In any case, a big victory for Johnson surely increases the chances of the sensible centre-Left either recapturing the Labour Party, or leaving it as a hard-Left rump party and establishing a new (Brownite) centre-Left party. This new party would be a few notches to the Left of the new Tory party on economics, and several yards to its Left (if that is the right word) on social and cultural matters.

So here is the second paradox of this election: at least in the medium term, it will shift UK politics in a European direction, with two cross-class “peoples’ parties” (like the CDU and SPD in Germany) with similar approaches to economic management, but with the Tories representing the more socially conservative strands of the electorate and Labour (or its successor party) representing the more liberal strands.

That will also mean that the most free market of the big European countries does not have a party that enthusiastically represents the free market (it is hard to see the social democratic Liberal Democrats filling that gap). But the free market can probably look after itself for now, and if Britain becomes too statist, the electorate will sense it and reshuffle the pack at some point in the future.

One doubt that some people, especially on the Left, will have about this thesis is whether a modest increase in NHS investment and a slogan or two about public infrastructure really amounts to a social democratic shift in the Tory party.

It is true that the Tory manifesto in the end was more modest on public spending commitments than I had hoped, and implicitly less redistributionist than I had wanted, with the promise not to increase any of the main income related taxes. The lack of a proper commitment to a partial socialisation of adult care costs, while understandable politically, was also a disappointment.

So is the Tory party just putting on a more centrist mask to appeal temporarily to the Brexit-voting lower-middle and working classes? I do not think the world works like that. Even for our short-termist, adversarial political culture, that would be an impossibly cynical move. It also ignores the fact that the party has almost certainly lost a section of the middle class over Brexit that needs to be replaced — and not just for one election.

No, from my own observations (and I work part-time in a centre-Right think tank and meet plenty of Tory MPs), I would say that the party — thanks to Brexit — is going through another of its great evolutionary shifts. My own think tank Policy Exchange recently produced a major piece of work calling for the socialisation of adult social care costs (with a supportive forward by that well known 19th century mill-owner Jacob Rees-Mogg).

The last Tory party conference had a mantra of three policies for post-Brexit Britain: sort out social care, build a lot more houses (including public ones for rent) and invest more in non-university, post-school education for the 60% who do not go into higher education. If this is the plan for de-regulated, race-to-the-bottom Britain, it is very craftily disguised.

So why are so many Tories so passionate about leaving the EU if it is not to loosen protections that their new voters are strongly attached to? No doubt there are some who are keen to see the back of the Working Time Directive and so on, but de-regulation and autonomy are here too often confused. The moderate nationalism that Brexit appealed to is the localism of our more globalised world.

Brexit now allows us to make our own choices about immigration, about farm subsidies, about regional aid and state subsidies, about contracting out rules in the public sector, about VAT levels, about the future of our legal system and much more. In many areas we will stick close to EU rules, in other areas we will diverge, and pay some economic price for doing so, but it will be our choice.

Is all this just the grumpy rationalisations of a privileged 60-something who flirted with leftism in his youth and is now returning to his Conservative/conservative roots? Well, I was a member of the Labour party for about 35 years and continued to vote (and sometimes even canvas) for them right up to 2015. I voted Tory in 2017, largely on Brexit grounds (as a Remain voter who wanted the decision implemented), and I might vote Liberal Democrat as an anti-Corbyn tactical vote in 2019. So to the extent that beliefs are expressed through political acts, I think I can now claim a pretty sound centrist record.

David Goodhart is the author of Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. He is head of the Demography unit at the think tank Policy Exchange.


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