From the archive: The coming Conservative split?

Michael Harris /   October 4, 2015 at 11:18 AM 3,786 views


The US Republican party is deeply divided, reflecting deepening fault lines in politics in the States but also the UK and many other countries. As British conservatives gather in Manchester for their party conference, seemingly on top of the world after their surprise general election victory, can they avoid a similar split?

Let’s first look at the Republicans to see what’s going on.

Put simply, the GOP is split between its so-called ‘establishment’ (long-standing Washington politicians, major donors and mainstream conservative commentators), and its even more conservative ‘base’ (activists, grassroots organisations, committed conservative voters and independent commentators). These tensions have existed for decades in various forms, and Republican politicians typically run for Congress promising to ‘sort out Washington’, but the more immediate roots of the deep distrust between establishment and base lie in George W. Bush’s second term.

This saw a major extension of the Medicare health insurance programme for senior citizens, a large increase in government spending and consequently government debt (in part due to the increased cost of social programmes such as Medicare, but also the ‘war on terror’ and unfunded tax cuts), the financial crisis and the bank bailout. Many right-wing voters and activists were disgusted by what they saw as yet another betrayal of ‘conservative principles’, in particular for smaller government. Activists particularly connected these betrayals with the influence of Washington lobbyists, big money donors, special interest groups and Wall Street financial interests.

Although the Tea Party movement emerged only after President Obama’s administration announced plans to give financial aid to bankrupt homeowners, and was later further fuelled by the passage of ‘Obamacare’, it was in many ways primarily a rejection of what grassroots conservatives saw as a general complacency among Republican elites, who they saw as distant from and indeed working against the interests of ordinary Americans.

This conservative rebellion has subsequently had a profound impact on Republican politics. The Tea Party movement has had a significant influence on which Republican politicians have been elected to Congress, and on their behaviour when they get there. This has also ensured that bipartisanship between Democrats and Republicans has been virtually impossible, in part because of the open warfare between Republicans in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives and Senate (as a result, last week House speaker John Boehner announced his resignation).

These divisions are also determining the fight for the Republican nomination for the 2016 Presidential election, with the ‘outsider’ candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina benefiting at the expense of the perceived establishment candidates, most notably Jeb Bush. Indeed, while Bush’s initial fund-raising prowess was seen by the mainstream media to reinforce his frontrunner status, to many grassroots conservatives it symbolised everything they think is wrong with the Republican establishment: its cosy networks of influence, money and power, and the suspicion that their politicians can be easily bought. Ted Cruz remarked recently that Democratic party donors don’t hate the liberal base, but Republican donors “actively despise” conservatives (the feeling is mutual). Meanwhile, despite his wealth (and despite having been one himself), Trump regularly pours scorn on the Republican donor class – the notion that he alone can’t be bought is one of the reasons for his success in the race so far.

Writing in the Boston Globe this week, Robert Reich, former US secretary of labor [sic] in the Clinton administration, diagnosed what’s driving this revolt of the grassroots:

“The antiestablishment backlash we’re witnessing in American politics – the surge of support for outsiders like Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson among Republicans, and for Bernie Sanders among Democrats – is connected to the view shared by many Americans that the current economic and political game is rigged against them.”

As Reich noted, despite the economic recovery that began in 2009, confidence in economic institutions has fallen sharply, as has confidence in political institutions (by 2012, 79 percent of Americans believed that government was ‘run by a few big interests looking out for themselves’). However disingenuous, outsider Republican candidates regularly use populist rhetoric to berate the ‘rich and powerful’. They know, as Reich points out, that many Republican voters share what would once have been radical positions on the left – such as cutting the biggest Wall Street banks down to a size, ending corporate welfare and ‘crony capitalism’ (including subsidies to big oil, big agribusiness, big pharma as well as Wall Street), and resisting international trade agreements.

As Reich concludes: “It is likely that in coming years the major fault line in American politics will shift from Democrat versus Republican to antiestablishment versus establishment. That coming divide will pit much of the middle class, working class, and poor, all of whom see the game as rigged, against many of the executives of large corporations, the inhabitants of Wall Street, and the establishment billionaires, who are perceived as doing the rigging.”

So, the question is: why haven’t British conservatives split like their US counterparts?

Obviously there are important differences in political culture and institutions between the US and UK that help to explain this – parties are typically weaker in the US, for example. But over the past 35 years there’s also been a significant synchronicity in the politics of the two countries as well – most notably between Reaganism and Thatcherism, New Democrats and New Labour, and also now in the crisis levels of declining trust in institutions, mainstream politics and politicians, and the media.

In this regard, British conservatives, or more properly the Conservative Party’s leaders (its establishment, if you will), have been lucky in a few critical respects:

  • they weren’t in power when the financial crisis struck (though they are reliant on donors from the financial sector and were at the time calling for even more deregulation for the City) and so they didn’t ‘own’ the increase in the deficit and national debt;
  • the Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats was a block on (and at times a convenient excuse for) not doing everything the right of the party wants – in other words, whereas base conservatives in the US blame for Republican leaders for ‘selling out’, in the UK the Conservative leadership had the excuse that the ‘LibDems wouldn’t let them’;
  • a Tea Party-style rebellion did take place, but it happened largely outside of the party and was safely siphoned off through UKIP.

Despite alarming the Conservative Party for a while, UKIP turned out to too shambolic and too focussed on immigration and Europe to harness the wider sense of political and economic disenfranchisement that Robert Reich describes (UKIP was also marginalised by our electoral system). For all of the profiles of Nigel Farage that treated him as if he had the ‘magic formula’ for tapping into widespread public dissatisfaction, he actually turned out to be rather hopeless at it, lacking the broader appeal and economic narrative required to breakthrough.

Now though the Conservative’s surprise, albeit narrow, general election victory has taken away these protections from the party’s leadership.

The Tories will continue to talk about Labour’s ‘overspending’ as the cause of the economic crisis, but they own the austerity which has protected the ‘rich and powerful’ against ordinary Britons and appear to want to do nothing to challenge the underlying economic forces which are driving economic disenfranchisement. While UKIP might not have been able to capitalise on widespread public anger, this feeling isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s already destabilised Labour, leading to a rejection of the more centrist leadership candidates in favour of Jeremy Corbyn and his ‘new politics’. And now, absent the Lib Dems, Cameron and Osborne have fewer excuses for not doing what the right wants.

The most obvious flashpoint for Tory division is Europe, but in many ways this has helpfully diverted the ‘antiestablishment versus establishment’ battle away from domestic economic issues. Grassroots conservatives and the right-wing media have often focused on an arrogant, out-of-touch elite in Brussels rather than in Westminster (though there’s certainly been some of the latter), whereas their US counterparts have no equivalent distraction. Nonetheless, in the past Europe has become the starting-point for grassroots Tories’ sense of being betrayed by their leaders, and it looks likely to again in the run-up and aftermath of the promised Euro referendum. Even under the Coalition government, there was a bubbling resentment in the party against Cameron and Osborne as out-of-touch elitists. The narrow election victory has bought them some time, but the sense of ‘whose side are they on?’ prevalent on the right and in the grassroots hasn’t gone away (just read the Telegraph comments section on any given day).

Perhaps the Conservatives will continue to be lucky. Perhaps better party management and giving the right and the grassroots just enough of what they want will help keep the conservative coalition together. But the fundamentals sweeping across the politics of the US, the UK and many other countries are the same, and it’s surely only a matter of time before the Tories will increasingly be forced to pick sides between the establishment and the rest of us.

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