This is the first time the Tories have faced a credible threat from their own right-wing
David Cameron is in the midst of ruling over the most complete collapse in fortunes of a right wing party since the US Republicans under George W Bush. Unlike Bush, however, this collapse is not driven by personal unpopularity. Instead it is driven by the Conservative Party itself, a party which is consuming itself so swiftly it has long torn itself free of Cameron’s control, like a ship which has jettisoned its helmsman and is heading for the white cliffs of Dover.
In a single year Cameron has suffered more consistent and large-scale backbench rebellions than any other British leader in living memory. His loss of control over his party is near-absolute, with controversial votes forcing him to rely on Liberal Democrat and Labour support against his own back benchers. The party whips are impotent, and before the fury of the Conservative right-wing Cameron can only look forlornly towards those towering, insurmountable cliffs which his party will crash against in the 2015 elections.
When Gordon Brown challenged him in the 2010 elections no one expected things to turn this way. Labour was by this point so reviled, and Tony Blair so toxically branded as a ‘War Criminal’ that it looked impossible that Labour would recover effectively by 2015. The rise of Ed Milliband over his brother only cemented this opinion, the power of the trade unions ousting the only candidate the public at large actually preferred to either the Prime Minister or his Deputy.
However, the last time the Tories led in opinion polls was February 2012; the last time they dominated was November 2010. Since then they have never once held more than 34% of the popular vote, and Labour has not once dipped below this figure, averaging a 7% lead. Following the election the left wing abandoned the Liberal Democrats wholesale, handing Labour a three year dominance of polling. But since then the Lib Dem core has held strong and even begun to recover, whereas the Tories have haemorrhaged support.
If Labour gained because of Lib Dem losses, the Tories should regain control as their partners recover. But things have become more complicated in the last three years. Enter the rise of UKIP.
On both occasions the Tories have held the polls UKIP has had a support of 4%. Today their support has pushed the Lib Dems to fourth, swallowing up Conservative right-wing votes and Lib Dem protest votes. The rise of UKIP has seemed unstoppable, rising to giddy heights of 23% in the polls in May. During the local elections this year they led a rout of the Conservatives, consuming their rural vote and leading to eight councils passing to no overall control. Labour continued to snatch delayed left wing votes from the Liberal Democrats, but the tale was one of humiliation of the Conservative Party and the seeds of panic were sown. The Tories became so desperate they even brought back Nadine Dorries, sacked from the party after a series of public stunts, to prevent her becoming UKIP’s first Member of Parliament.
The Conservative Party has spent the last year of the rise of UKIP eating itself alive in a frenzy of panicked reactionism. They sparked what would become a concerted Liberal Democrat effort to destroy their right wing policies when 110 voted against Lords Reform. 51 rebelled to lead to a government loss on EU budget negotiations. 136 formed the bulk of the opposition to gay marriage. Most drastically, 116 voted against their own party’s Queen Speech. If this had succeeded parliamentary convention would have forced the resignation of Cameron as Prime Minister. It was a betrayal of the highest order. Last week they took it a step further, releasing an “alternative” Queen’s speech filled with the most right-wing measures they could think of. These included banning the Burqa, introducing national service, ejection of asylum seekers to other countries, returning capital punishment, merging the Scottish, Welsh and Irish offices, introducing “Margaret Thatcher Day”, withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights, privatising the BBC, and
withdrawing from the EU. All-in-all, a collection of the things which would completely alienate 70% of the British public.
The response of the Conservatives to UKIP seems to be to spin right to challenge them on their own ground. Not only would this to be to ignore the fate of the US Republicans (who threw away the 2012 election by pandering to the tea party and Christian right); it is completely out of touch with electoral politics. Elections are won on the centre ground. That was where Tony Blair swept to three election victories and where the Liberal Democrats forced a hung parliament in 2010. David Cameron knows this. He is a moderate, not too greatly distant from Nick Clegg politically, and he is looking on in despair as his party does its utmost to destroy their own chances in 2015.
This has not been lost on Labour. Milliband has presided over a march back to the centre with support for the end of universal benefits and for a limited austerity program. If this continues there will be a rout in 2015.
Much has been made of the rise of the far-right in Britain, from the surge of UKIP to the return of the British National Party and marches of the English Defence League. The killings of Woolwich have bolstered this impression, and the news is filled with stories about their rise in popularity and the push against immigration and Islamic extremism. However the media loves controversy, and their focus on the far-right has created a false-dawn for the movement.
UKIP’s boom has been short-lived. Since the local elections their support almost halved, and they have found themselves back to jockeying with the Liberal Democrats for third position in the polls. Media coverage started well, but swiftly found the cracks in their party and has since trailed off. UKIP councillors swept up in the local elections have been dropping like flies; resignations abound for reasons as disparate as shoplifting and racism. On the racism side of things, half a dozen have resigned for impressively politically unprofessional social media rants of this nature, a major downside of UKIP’s inability to properly vet candidates before selection. Nigel Farrage’s recent visits to Scotland became advertisement of the backlash which may yet keep his party on the fringes of politics.
The BNP has not fared any better and is mired in financial troubles on the verge of bankruptcy. Attempted rallies have managed no support and it is rumoured the party only still exists at all because it is bankrolled by Nick Griffin’s MEP cheques.The EDL, thought by the media to be thriving on the wave of anti-Islamic feeling after Woolwich, has found itself completely outnumbered wherever it turns. Each of its rallies has under-performed, attracting dozens instead of hundreds. Anti-fascist rallies have driven EDL marches into retreat across the country. The best media coverage they’ve enjoyed so far is a rally that was so small its members were invited in for tea by the Mosque they were picketing. They even played football with them.
The British far-right is not rising, it’s collapsing. That UKIP was forced for months to repeat that it was the only party to deny BNP members candidacy is a sign of the divided organisational mess the fringe has become. They have media attention because they are controversial, because they say newsworthy things, not because they are a real power in British politics or a threat in the long-term. When the National Front collapsed the BNP rose as a more moderate version. With the collapse of the BNP UKIP has taken its place as yet again a more moderate entity. The story is one of the demise of the far-right. A high-level EDL meeting between moderate southerners and the ‘Infidel’ northern group devolved into no more than a street fight.
But none of this is stopping the self-immolation of the Conservative Party. Rather than doing all they can to lessen their losses (ignoring UKIP, denying them a platform, continuing business as usual, and taking the centre from Labour and the Liberal Democrats) they have collapsed into a frenzied panic completely incapable of coherent or strategic thought. Cameron is left in the bizarre position that he is
being saved from complete government collapse by the Liberal Democrats, who have stuck by him and kept the coalition firmly on the centre-ground. Rather than thank the sanity of their partners however, the Tory back benchers have launched repeated attacks on them in their desperate attempts to become a radical fringe which is increasingly alienating itself from the centre. In 2015 Labour will launch an attack on every fringe seat, whilst the Tories will find themselves trying to win a threeway fight against Labour in the urban centres, UKIP on the right wing and the Liberal Democrats in the countryside. It’s a fight they simply cannot win.
UKIP may well remain the largest threat to the Conservatives in their history. Never before have they been faced by a right-wing opponent drawing in over 10% of the national vote. Although UKIP is still unlikely to gain a Westminster seat, and will not perform as strongly in the 2015 elections as the 2013 ones, that 10% is
predominantly drawn from the Conservative right-wing vote. In the UK’s (misguided) First Past the Post system of voting it does not matter if over 50% of the vote is for right wing parties. If that vote is split then neither party will be elected and a left-wing one will go to parliament. That is what happened to the Liberals in the 1920s with the rise of Labour and what happened to Labour in the 1980s with the split with the Social Democrats. Neither party has ever recovered to unify the left-wing vote and has been forced to seize the centre to recover elections. Ironically, the rise of UKIP to split the right-wing vote may be the most successful attempt to elect left-wing politicians in British history, so successful the more conspiracy-minded could almost suggest Nigel Farage is a cunning socialist in disguise. That is the future the Conservatives are looking at, one where their salvation is the centre-ground, not the right wing fringe.
The Conservatives have been in decline since the 1950s and have never since claimed the support they enjoyed half a century ago. The victories of Tony Blair should have been a wake-up call, a sign that their drift to the right was dragging them to political irrelevance. Their inability to win in 2010 with a landslide should have been alarming given the extreme unpopularity of Labour following the Iraq War and financial crisis. The defeat of David Milliband should have given them a chance to seize the centre the trade unions had abandoned and retake the polls. Instead the Conservatives have embraced their own reactionary crisis and handed UKIP the fuel they need to set the centre-right ablaze.
Ed Milliband has spent the majority of this parliament not even setting any policies for Labour to run with for the next election. He doesn’t have to. He can just sit back and wait for the right-wing to destroy itself for him.