Sep 162012
 

Chris Dillow asks:

One remarkable feature of the Conservative party since the late 19th century has been that it has been the party of most of the rich. It has more or less successfully represented the interests of land-owners, rentiers, industrialists and commerce…

What I am doing, though, is raising a question. It’s long been a cliche that Labour’s class base – industrial workers – is shrinking and fragmenting. But might the same be also true for the Tories?

In the context he mentions—that of commerce’s interests conflicting with the land-owners’ interest, particularly regarding a third runway at Heathrow—I think he’s right, but in answer to the greater question he poses, I think he’s also right.

Which is unusual, because a lot of the time, I don’t agree with Chris Dillow.

However, sometimes—especially when he writes about managerialism and where the major parties go wrong—I find myself nodding along.

The majority of people in Britain today are neither land-owners of the old sort, rentiers, industrialists, ‘commerce,’ or industrial workers. Relying on these groups, singly or in combination, is not going to give any major party enough votes to stay in power (though it might provide enough financial support to keep a party going). Thus the never-ending race to the centre ground, and the fact that both the Conservatives and Labour have seen their traditional class bases shrinking and fragmenting.

When society is no longer divided along the traditional class lines—no matter how much people want to cling to this way of looking at life’s great pageant—the political parties can’t work that way either, and when they try to keep at it, as they so obviously are, they end up pissing off their voters, which they have.

It would be interesting to see the opinion-formers shake off the old dogma about class and try to identify where the lines are really drawn these days—private vs public sector workers, maybe, or workers vs non-workers, or even (god forbid) British vs foreigners—but I don’t really see that happening anytime soon. For one thing, it’s widely socially acceptable to fulminate against rentiers, industrialists, unions, etc., whereas it’s generally unacceptable to fulminate against your average worker, non-worker, or foreigner (although interestingly, in the case of foreigners, this only applies to non-whites—apparently you can bitch about Polish people all you like without being considered racist). For another, to acknowledge new class-based groups is to redraw the distinction between left and right, which probably suits neither the left nor the right, and is why the opinion-formers don’t do it and why the political parties in this country have such schizophrenic views.

A lot of people seem to approve of this schizophrenia (“It’s, like, not ideological, man”), but I think there’s something seriously wrong with it: if you’re a voter who cares about the actual, stated policies of political parties, it’s impossible to really like any of them because there’s always some conflict. For example, I really like the Lib Dem policy of raising the personal tax allowance, but I really dislike their policy on Lords reform. It’s not that I think Lords reform is an inherently bad idea, it’s just that I think their particular proposal is the wrong one.

And the end result is that this contributes to the huge voter apathy people are always banging on about. It’s not the only contributor, by any means, but it certainly is one of them. I’m not a land-owner, rentier, or industrialist, so the Conservatives aren’t looking out for my interests. I’m not an industrial worker, so Labour isn’t either. I’m employed, so everyone’s trying to represent me, but one day I might be unemployed, so everyone’s still trying to represent me. You see? How does your average person even choose these days?

These modern class divisions, unlike the old ones, are fluid, and I might be on one side today and the other side tomorrow. It’s no wonder the political parties are suffering fractures.

Maybe, instead of trying to represent specific classes or groups, it’s time for the parties to return to ideology, and let the chips fall where they may. That would, at least, be internally consistent and supply an actual framework for how parties might respond to unexpected issues, rather than the bizarre pendulum of expedience we get now. Then people could decide whom to vote for based on actual value systems rather than tedious detail about e.g. government funding for house-building in the green belt.

(Incidentally, can anybody think of a political issue that is more crazy-making than housing? It’s like this great battle between those who think everyone should have a chance to get on the property ladder, those who don’t want estates built near their village, those who want more social housing built to ease the housing shortage, those who don’t want the environment ruined by paving over the nation with suburbs, those who don’t want the value of their own homes to fall due to increased supply, and those who only want houses built in places where there is enough public transport to stop people driving cars. I would hate to hold the housing brief for any of the major parties and try to tread that minefield.)

UPDATE: Here’s another take on Chris’s thesis, with more of a focus on reducing the conflict-based nature of party politics.