Issue 66 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Spring 1995 Copyright © International Socialism
John Major now presides over the most unpopular government since records began, but that's not the only problem facing the Conservative Party--the party itself is in long term decline with membership shrinking and commitment weakening.
In response to the current malaise many Tories hark back to the 'golden days' of Thatcherism, but new research detailed in the book True Blues shows that during Thatcher's premiership the decline of the Tory Party actually accelerated. Another new book shows how the Tories' attempts to introduce the poll tax undermined their own support. The authors of Failure in British Politics set out to explain how the government came to introduce a policy as suicidal as the poll tax. The tax has been seen as a simple aberration or a product of Thatcher's increasingly megalomaniac personality. Accident and egomania may have played a role, but the introduction and forced abandonment of the poll tax really illustrate more fundamental conflicts within the Conservative Party.
The Tory Party is divided because it serves the interests of the ruling class, but its membership also includes many members of the middle class. During deep economic crises these two sections of the party can have different interests. So, while it is the poor who have undoubtedly suffered the most under the Tories, the government's increasingly desperate measures have pulled wider and wider layers of society into opposition and even, at times, active resistance. The poll tax is only one especially dramatic example of this process. The whole episode of the poll tax also shows that, while the Conservative Party is ripped apart by internal divisions, it is not enough to simply wait for it to commit collective suicide. This is what ex Labour leader Neil Kinnock discovered when he lost the 1992 general election.
True Blues is really aimed at social scientists, but among the statistics and equations are some revealing facts. Amazing as it may seem today, the Conservative Party is one of the most successful parliamentary parties of all time. The Tories have held office for all but 28 years this century. They have been in office for 73 percent of the time since 1950. Despite this the Conservative Party is now in serious decline. The average age of Conservative Party members is 62, almost half are over 66. This means that around 40 percent of the party will die over the next ten years!
Party members are not only old, they are inactive. Only 18 percent even display election posters (many admitted to being afraid of social ostracism if they did). The two most common reasons for people joining the Tories is either 'to oppose the Labour Party or trade unions' or for 'social reasons'.1 These take precedence over any loyalty to the Conservative Party or commitment to its principles. In their study, Whiteley, Seyd and Richardson estimate that since 1960 the membership of the party has been declining by 64,000 a year and will be less than 100,000 by the end of the century. Personal donations to the party fell from £14 million in 1992 to only £3 million in 1993, the worst fall since Conservative Party records began.
True Blues confirms that, while the Conservative Party represents the interests of big capitalists and the ruling class as a whole, its members come from the petty bourgeoisie. This is clearly seen in the area of education. Private education has always been important to Conservative politics, and many MPs are educated at fee paying schools. But the majority of party members left school at 16, and only about one quarter went to private schools. Most members are neither rich nor poor. Less than 10 percent of the party is made up of working class members (these are mostly farm workers) and a further 6 percent are foremen and technicians. At the other end of the scale, only 8 percent have household incomes of more than £50,000.
The vast majority of Conservative Party members work in the private sector of the economy. An overwhelming 91 percent own their own homes. Only 4 percent took advantage of the Tories' right to buy policies--most had owned their own homes for years. It is a similar picture with the government's privatisation of public industries; many Tory Party members bought shares but 70 percent owned stocks and shares before the privatisation share issues. Members of the Conservative Party are a lot older and more middle class than the people who vote for it.
Significantly, about 40 percent of the members believe that they have risen up the class structure from working class families. They see themselves as upwardly mobile and are terrified of being thrust back into the poverty from which they have escaped.
The membership of the Conservative Party underwent a significant change during the Thatcher years. From the late 1970s onwards the new members who joined were much less active and committed to the party. Thatcher is remembered as the champion of grass roots party members but, in reality, the most active Tories were usually 'wets' who disliked her ruthless attacks on the welfare state. Successive Thatcher governments set out to weaken the power of local councils, many of which were Labour controlled during the 1980s. Ironically, many party members say that the chance to get involved in local government was an important incentive for joining the Conservatives. By launching a campaign against local councils, the Thatcher government undermined recruitment to their own party.
The existence of local government gives Tory party members the feeling that they can influence local affairs, but the number who actually get involved in institutions of local authority (local councillors, special constables etc) is actually quite limited. The party, however, is still so large that if only 1 percent are magistrates this amounts to a total of 7,500 people, giving the Tories considerable influence. The study does not deal with the massive growth of quangos which are overwhelmingly staffed by Tories. However, from the figures available it appears that grass roots Tories have not been involved in the quango gravy train, the real beneficiaries being from the upper echelons of the the party.
With hindsight it seems almost incomprehensible that the Thatcher government should have attempted to introduce such a blatantly regressive tax as the poll tax. No government had seriously considered the poll tax as an option since 1381 when a similar tax sparked the peasants' revolt. In the 1980s the Tories had two great incentives to abolish the rates system of raising funds for local government. The first was an economically motivated drive to slash public spending. The other was an ideologically driven attempt to reorganise local government.
The rating systems had long been hated by the Tories because tax levels were linked to ability to pay. In fact, they were not very keen on local government as a whole. Nicholas Ridley, who was to take a turn as minister in charge of the poll tax, expressed a commonly felt hostility to all local government. He wrote in a controversial Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet that 'inefficiency is not, I regret to say, confined to councils run by the Terrible Trots'.2
This dislike was fed by the rise of municipal socialism in the early 1980s, when Labour left wingers took over many big metropolitan councils. 'Red Ken' Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, became a hate figure in the Tory tabloids. In Liverpool the Militant dominated council forced the government to reach a financial compromise which caused shock waves among the establishment. The headline of The Economist was 'Liverpool millions, Jenkin nil' (Jenkin was minister for the environment). The government and the Tory tabloids whipped up a hysterical campaign against the Labour run councils.
This was typical of the Thatcher government's method of dealing with those who resisted its policies. First the government would launch a campaign to demonise any potential enemy. The National Union of Mineworkers became the 'enemy within' and the councils were all run by the 'loony left'. Then the isolated opponents could be picked off one at a time.
To reinforce the campaign against the rates system senior Tories constantly talked about 'little old ladies', often widows, who were paying the same rates as households full of wage earners. The language used by different ministers was curiously similar. Thatcher's recollection of the time is typical: 'I witnessed a chorus of complaints from people living alone--widows for example--who consumed far less of local authority services than the large family next door with several working sons, but who were expected to pay the same rates bills'.3 Never before or since had little old ladies provoked such a storm of emotion among Tory politicians. In fact, there was no evidence that any ministers were inundated with such complaints.
This campaign developed a momentum of its own. The Tory party leadership is famous for the contempt in which it holds ordinary party members. The party members have no influence over policy or party organisation. A majority of party members themselves do not think that the leadership listens to their views.4 This attitude is summed up by ex-leader Arthur Balfour's famous comment that he would rather take the advice of his valet than consult the Tory Party conference.5 However, plans to introduce the poll tax went forward in great leaps at every annual conference. This was not the result of consultation with the conference delegates. Rather it was because the conference, which acts as a crucial stage on which ministers with ambitions have to perform well, demands that any Tory with leadership pretensions must turn up with something designed to win the adulation of the faithful. The leadership had created the monster of the 'loony left' councils, so they had to be seen to be able to slay it. The ambitions of various Tory ministers helped increase the momentum for the introduction of the poll tax.
The whole cabinet was convinced that getting rid of the rates, at whatever the cost, would be popular. Their great confidence was based on very flimsy evidence. For Thatcher, it was a simple matter of gut feeling:
Deep in their instincts people find what I am saying and doing right and I know it is because it is the way I was brought up in a small town. We knew everyone, we knew what people thought. I sort of regard myself as a very normal, ordinary person with all the right instinctive antennae
Thatcher's antennae proved to be inaccurate not simply because of her own arrogance but because the Tory leaders' contempt for democracy meant they could not gauge the mood of their own party, never mind that the wider electorate. So Thatcher called the poll tax the 'flagship of the Thatcher fleet', and Nicholas Ridley, minister for the environment, bragged that the tax was fair because a duke would pay the same as a dustman.
The cabinet insisted on believing that the poll tax would be lower than the rates despite evidence as early as 1987 that it would be much higher than the rates in many areas, not just in Labour run inner cities. The impression given by the memoirs quoted in Failure in British Politics is that ministers really believed that if they repeated the lie often enough it would become true. They were so confident that they abandoned plans to introduce the tax gradually and to cushion its impact.
The Tories' strategy of lying about the levels of the tax simply increased taxpayers' sense of shock when the real bills arrived. In Scotland the bills were the signal for mass protests which spread south when the tax hit England. Hundreds of thousands faced the courts because they refused to pay the tax. By spring 1990 the revolt was massive. Every time councils around the country met to set a rate they were greeted by mass demonstrations, some turning into riots when the police intervened.
In March 1990 the Tories lost the Mid-Staffordshire by-election--a 'safe seat' lost by what was then a record 22 percent swing to Labour. The campaign culminated in the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation marches in London and Edinburgh. A major riot erupted when police attacked the London march. Scaffolding and buildings were set alight, and the rioting spread across Soho, Charing Cross and Covent Garden, and became an international news story.
The government was shocked by the fact that everyone blamed them, not the councils, for the huge tax bills and the mass protests. Even Tories blamed the government--the whole of the ruling Conservative group on West Oxfordshire Council resigned in protest against the tax. The Tories hoped that Labour would be blamed for the violence at the Trafalgar Square demonstration. In fact Labour's support went up. To her horror, Thatcher realised that she had succeeded making 'law abiding, decent people' side with 'the mob'.7
The riots had a massive impact. After them only a few diehard ministers, like Michael Portillo, continued to support the tax. Thatcher's days were numbered. But the Tory party did not only lose their prime minister--£1.5 billion was lost administering the tax, in addition to the £20 billion costs and a further £6 billion on local tax bills.
It is incredible that during the long process of drafting and bringing in the poll tax so few voices were raised against it. The poll tax debacle shows the undemocratic nature of a parliamentary system supposedly able to prevent such disasters from happening. Once the tax was approved by the Tory leadership, anyone who raised doubts about it would be considered a 'wet' and their careers suffered accordingly. Few MPs were prepared to sacrifice their careers. This was as true of the civil servants involved as it was of ministers like Kenneth Baker and William Waldegrave who were initially in charge of the tax. The House of Lords was far too spineless to vote against the poll tax, especially because, in a cynical move, lots of old Tories were wheeled out to ensure the bill introducing the tax was passed (it was one of the largest turnouts ever for a vote in the Lords).
The official parliamentary opposition, the Labour Party, was not much better. Failure in British Government exposes Labour's failure to oppose the poll tax, either in parliament or outside it. The Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, seemed as intent on attacking Militant supporters as he was on attacking the government, and refused to support the nonpayment campaigns:
Tony Benn, exasperated by his inability to get Kinnock to support the ill-fated Trafalgar Square rally in the spring of 1990, told his diary: 'The Labour Party is more frightened of the anti poll tax campaign than of the poll tax itself.' He was not far off the mark.8
Thousands of people switched to supporting Labour because they hated the tax, even though the Labour leaders did nothing to oppose it. Labour's support was at its peak after the Trafalgar Square riot but their strategy of distancing themselves from any active opposition to the Tories meant that they lost the 1992 election.
Failure in British Government shows how even an apparently all-powerful government is vulnerable to mass opposition. Thatcher had a large majority, a loyal civil service and a weak opposition, but she still completely failed to introduce the poll tax. Arrogant to the last, she wrote in her memoirs about the poll tax, 'its benefits were just becoming apparent when it was abandoned'!9
Thatcher's government dreamt up the poll tax apparently confident that they would not be opposed. In parliamentary terms, they were right. The book acknowledges that the only real opposition to the tax was the mass campaign outside parliament which was independent of the official labour movement and was successful in getting rid of both the poll tax and the prime minister. However, it is a major weakness of the book that the mass movement which had such an impact on the political situation is mentioned only in passing.
The poll tax was only one spectacular example of how Tory policies during the 1980s undermined the long term strength of their own organisation. Another crucial factor was the state of the economy. The economic recession of the early 1980s played a major part in undermining the morale and commitment of Tory members. The continuing economic decline of the 1990s has accelerated that process and created bitter divisions within the party.
Local party organisation continues to play a crucial role in election campaigns despite the growth of the mass media. The Conservatives would have lost the 1987 general election if they had abandoned campaigning at a local level.10 The malaise in the Conservative Party organisation will therefore make it harder for them to win elections in the future. One possible salvation for the Tories lies with the Labour Party. Labour leader Tony Blair is following in Neil Kinnock's footsteps, driving Labour ever further towards the Tories, while the Tories themselves sink to new depths of unpopularity.