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The edge of extinction

Summary:
Referring back to this 2002 post defining “neoliberalism”, I find the claim that the “The (UK) Conservative party is hovering on the edge of extinction”. That wasn’t one of my more accurate assessments, and I’m bearing it in mind when I look at suggestions that the party is now “facing a defeat so dramatic it may not survive.” (that’s the headline, the actual suggestion is that the future may be one of “long periods of Labour with occasional periods of Conservative governments” As shown the example of my 2002 assessment (quite widely shared at the time), there’s a lot of ruin in a political party. Particularly in a constituency system like that in the UK and its offshoots, political parties are long-lived and can recover from crushing defeats. The Canadian experience is, in

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Referring back to this 2002 post defining “neoliberalism”, I find the claim that the “The (UK) Conservative party is hovering on the edge of extinction”. That wasn’t one of my more accurate assessments, and I’m bearing it in mind when I look at suggestions that the party is now “facing a defeat so dramatic it may not survive.” (that’s the headline, the actual suggestion is that the future may be one of “long periods of Labour with occasional periods of Conservative governments”

As shown the example of my 2002 assessment (quite widely shared at the time), there’s a lot of ruin in a political party. Particularly in a constituency system like that in the UK and its offshoots, political parties are long-lived and can recover from crushing defeats. The Canadian experience is, in many ways, the exception that proves (tests) the rule. In 1993, the bizarrely named Progressive Conservative party lost all but two of its seats and was displaced (foreshadowing a possible UK future) by the recently formed Reform party. But in mere 10 years the two had merged to form the Conservative party which regained office in 2006 (thanks to the first-past the post system the Conservatives could win with minority support against three parties to their left).

That suggests one possible future for the Conservatives. A loss this time around will lead to an eventual merger with Reform and a return to the long-standing two-party system.

The case for extinction rests on the huge age gradient created by Brexit. Before Brexit, the UK wasn’t that much different from other countries. Young people were somewhat to the left but other factors (income, education and so on) were more relevant. But Brexit was a piece nostalgia politics in which old voters, with no real stake in the outcome, chose to indulge their fantasies at the expense of the young. Since then, the political right (both Tories and UKIP/Reform/Brexit party) has relied entirely on old voters. Even in the triumph of 2019, the right secured a majority only among voters over 50

The failure of Brexit and the disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic have obliterated support for the right among voters of working age (for whom political decisions matter). The right has majority support only among voters over 70, who can afford to vote frivolously, knowing that their pensions are safe and that they won’t be around to experience the adverse consequences of their choices

Among 18-24 voters the picture is truly dire. Combined support for the Tories and Reform is 14 per cent, level pegging with the Greens. It’s even more striking among young women, with only 5 per cent supporting the Tories. Among other things, that’s well below the proportion identifying as LGBT. If the right respond to defeat in the coming election by amplifying anti-woke rhetoric it’s hard to see this situation improving.

More generally, it’s hard to see the UK right regrouping successfully in the term of the next parliament. But in 10 years time, many of the 70+ voters who form their political base at present will be gone[1], replaced by young people who have no positive memories of conservative government. So far at least, there is no sign of any attempt to attract new voters. Most obviously, the proposal for national service seems designed to do the opposite, shoring up the support of the old at the cost of writing off the young.

With Starmer chasing the same voters, it’s possible to imagine the emergence of a strong left opposition party building on existing youth support for the Greens and the progressive elements of the Liberal Democrats. More probable, I think is a future where a centre-right Starmer government holds on for years, even with minority support, with its opponents split between left and far-right. I can’t say this is a particularly hopeful vision, but, should it come to pass, I won’t be mourning the Tories.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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