Just over ten years ago, the Labour Party elected Ed Miliband as leader, setting off a series of events that ended with Britain leaving the European Union and a former journalist entering Number 10.
Ed, the younger brother of leadership favourite David Miliband, was an unlikely choice — somewhat geeky, often awkward, he would become the butt of a mocking media that thought the Labour Party had reached a nadir with its leader.
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Ed’s older brother was no Blair, but he may well have beaten David Cameron in 2015, although the strongest candidate was by now a television dancing star, an appropriately bizarre sub-plot to an increasingly strange political decade. Stunned by a defeat which no one on social media foresaw, the Labour Party then voted in the unlikeliest of candidates, a far-Left backbencher who effectively sabotaged the following year’s EU referendum, or performed with such ineptitude it was effectively sabotage. The result was eventual electoral disaster.
By the end of 2019, Boris Johnson might have thought he had it made, winning the Tories’ biggest majority in more than 30 years with the support of two dozen once-solidly Labour seats in the north. In the second-most cursed tweet of the past five years, the PM promised on 2 January that 2020 would be a “fantastic year for Britain”, and it certainly appeared to be for the Tory party, way ahead in the polls.
I had mixed feelings about the election victory — obviously pleased to not enjoy the coming miracle of Corbynomics, I had also written a soon-to-be-published book in which I warned that conservatism was facing defeat. That was unfortunate timing, but to quote Homer Simpson: “We are doomed – in your face!”
So let’s put our pessimism goggles on and look at how much trouble the Conservatives are actually in. The party has enjoyed a decade of ineffectual opposition, a temporary advantage that has evaporated within weeks of a competent Labour leader being in place.
The next few years are going to be hard, and the Government has not handled Covid-19 well. On top of that, the narrative of the corona crisis is one that suits Labour — heroic carers and nurses, with the NHS our shield (never mind that our health system performed poorly, the NHS can never fail, it can only be let down by politicians) and large, unjust disparities between poorer people catching the virus while the wealthy work from home.
But the underlying demographic changes are what should cause Tories to worry most: namely that young people are not becoming more conservative as they reach middle age, or at least are doing so very slowly, countering a historic trend which had much to do with social patterns that no longer exist.
Conservatism is heavily contingent on lifestyle. Among Americans, for example, marriage (and motherhood) is the single biggest factor determining how white women vote, the country’s marriage gap being far larger than its gender gap (although Donald Trump, being utterly repulsive to a lot of women, did narrow this).
Liberalism, with its focus on the individual and the individual’s limitless potential, has always been associated with singledom. Most of its founding philosophical fathers were childless men, including Locke, Mill, Spinoza, Bentham, Hume and Adam Smith. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau had five children but abandoned them all to the death sentence of orphanages.)
Liberalism becomes far more impractical when children come along, especially the most fundamental of liberal principles, sexual equality. It is possible for both parents to work with an infant at home, and share the burden equally, but it is not easy, and it is not cheap; there are trade-offs and sacrifices and when those sorts of conversations emerge, that’s when conservatism rears its head.
So one reason that English-speaking culture has become so much more liberal is that we live in a society that is unusually single; the only comparable period was pre-Reformation western Europe, where the childless were overwhelmingly in religious orders. It was hardly noticed, amid the gloom of 2020, but fertility levels in England and Wales continue to plummet, and it seems unlikely that this miserable year will have inspired a baby boom.
Marriage rates are affected by a number of cultural factors, especially religion, but the simple cost of having children is also an obvious problem. Children have become more expensive, and the biggest component is runaway housing costs; in the US there is a clear correlation between high house prices and support for the Democrats.
In Britain, Conservative economic policy was for many years to encourage rising house prices as a nest egg, but each increase in value, aided by our strict planning laws, was decreasing the number of future Tories. Now, highly-expensive London is a sea of red and it’s only a matter of time before that starts to spread into the Home Counties.
Left-wing parties win where land is expensive, and cities comprise the most expensive real estate of all, and they are everywhere more liberal than rural areas. This has long been the case, for as Russell Kirk put it, “conservatism always has had its most loyal adherents in the country, where man is slow to break with the old ways that link him with his God in the infinity above and with his father in the grave at his feet.” People in cities tend to different lifestyles — more outward-looking, more innovative, sexually promiscuous and prone to mental illness, all behaviour associated with liberalism.
So, as Britain continues to become more densely-populated, it will move even further to the Left — a pattern tied to another core problem for conservatism: immigration. On average immigrants, and ethnic minority voters, tend to vote for centre-Left parties, a pattern found across the western world (although the extent varies). However much commentators tell Right-wing parties to embrace immigration and diversity, it will never be in their electoral interests to do so, something Labour and Democrat strategists are obviously aware of.
As western societies become more diverse, Right-wing parties pick up more support from more culturally conservative whites, as happened in 2016 in the US and last year in Britain. But these voters tend to be older: the Tories won 67% of the over 70s at the last election, but just 21% of 18-24s. The latest polls are similarly gloomy.
This gap is a surprisingly new development; until 2001, there was little generational difference in voting and under Thatcher the Tories did well among the young, but it’s true that people do tend to move to the Right over their lifetimes. Yet among 20 and 30-somethings this is happening at such a slow rate as to be of little help to the Tories as they are swept away by generational change.
Young people are just far more liberal than their elders were at the same age, a shift linked to social changes beyond any party control, in particular the long decline of the cultural memory of Christianity. In the long term, these wider cultural trends will probably change back; for one thing, conservatives consistently have more children than liberals, and a political philosophy based on super-sub-replacement fertility won’t last forever — but that is way in the future.
Even more worrying for Conservatives is the fact that whole professions and high-status institutions are moving to the Left, not just in more obviously liberal sectors like academia or journalism but among doctors, scientists and the civil service, not especially Left-leaning areas until recently. Conservatism has become associated with low social status — see a St George’s avatar on someone’s Twitter bio and you can guess their income and education levels — and historically people follow the belief systems of those higher up the social scale. This has been further aggravated by Brexit, which has radicalised a generation of younger voters who will now forever see the Tories as the party that threw away their future.
Demographic trends are moving away from the Tories, but these will accelerate if Labour win power in 2024, and further entrench their supporters within the institutions we once called civil society (now almost all funded by the state). It will mean further laws, like the 2010 Equality Act, that ingrain progressive politics whoever is charge, and ever stronger progressive institutional control over education, academia and elsewhere.
With the proposed appointments of Paul Dacre to Ofcom and Charles Moore to the BBC (though the latter has now said he wouldn’t accept it) there seems to finally be some understanding among the Tories that there is no point winning elections if the state is run by your opponents. The BLM protests, in which numerous institutions came out in support of an agenda conservatives find extreme and hostile, may have shaken some into acting.
Yet many Tories still think it’s the 1980s; that if they deliver on the economy and cut the bloated state, voters will fall into their laps. But for small-c conservatives the state is not really the problem anymore; there are some easy wins to be had by pulling the plug on “social justice” orientated courses being taught at universities, often lacking rigour and promoting political intolerance. Likewise with some public bodies that aggressively promote progressive ideology and could be defunded.
But the wider anti-conservative cultural moment goes beyond this, and the most aggressive form of activism is now driven by big business — Woke Capital — which stood solidly behind the summer protests, as it now does with all radical movements (except those few that harm the bottom line). Leftism is not something limply subsidised by the state, it is the culturally dominant power, intimately tied in with the very individualism and consumerism previous Conservative policies have helped to promote. It is the politics of the individual who finds meaning with group identity politics because their prospects of a home and a family are slipping away.
Culture wars may be worth fighting but they can’t be won so long as the Tories cannot offer a better future and an alternative away from this world of dreary conformity. And they are running out of time, and voters.