Musings on Dominic Cummings
I sometimes get confused whether I’m watching the Conservative Party implode or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; an all-too close relationship with the Mother of the Party Margaret Thatcher, a constant desire to defenestrate their leader and now, like the King of Thebes, their own actions have seen them lose the power they once had.
A fleeting year ago, Conservatives spoke hopefully of another decade in power. But ‘After the Fall’, a new report from Onward, shows just how badly these predictions have been dashed on the notoriously rocky shores of reality.
As obituaries go, its fairly to the point; just 39% of 2019 voters would vote Tory; 35% of voters rated their likelihood of ever voting Tory at zero; In all but three of their 2019 gains, voters are more likely to consider Labour.
Although the Conservative sun is setting, the Labour one is hardly rising; their vote is only 15% higher than it was at the last election. Although they have been hemorrhaging away from the party, fewer than one in ten 2019 Tory voters have gone red again, a shift that sets the clock back from 2019 to that glorious red dawn of…. 2017. The Tories are dead, Labour are undergoing a crisis and I don’t feel so hot either
Apathy is the driving force behind this voter behaviour. Those shifting voters still don’t view Labour as ‘their party’ whilst the new coalition that swept Boris Johnson is, after two years after the Conservatives, by electing Liz Truss, betrayed their complete failure to stay connected to the new political realignment. Both parties are now failing to speak to a swathe of people big enough to deliver majorities so crushing they would make Saddam Hussein blush.
As Onwards’ report shows, politics drawn along a left/right axis belongs in the 20th century. The vast majority of people now want an active state that’s prepared to intervene in order to ensure to tackle issues like rising inequality and low pay. They want to make sure everyone, from every community, gets a fair deal and a fair chance to get ahead. They don’t see freedom as the ultimate political virtue – they value British values, order and stability too. They are, as Adrian Pabst describes; ‘broadly communitarian: somehow small-c conservative in their approach to matters of state, law and order, and small-s socialist on public services, fair play and hard work.’
Former Standford and UCLA professor Guido Tabellini wrote a short briefing on this new realignment. He noted two more changes to go along with the waning of the traditional left/right conflict; firstly, that support for traditional parties based on the old model of politics shrinks whilst new parties positioned on the new axis surge and secondly, that many of these new parties run on anti-establishment and anti-elite platforms, campaigning as the ‘true voice of the people’.
Britain, in the finest tradition of British exceptionalism, is not quite true to these trends. The underlying change in political alignment is happening, and there have been rises in anti-establishment and anti-elite platforms, but it has been given a different voice than new parties. There are several reasons for this; the first is that the domination of the electoral system by either Labour or the Conservatives and the FPTP electoral system makes it incredible difficult for new parties to win seats (although Nigel Farage vehicles have achieved admirable effects). The second is that the electorate have been presented with alternate outlets; first the Brexit referendum, then the populist figure of Boris Johnson.
The establishment is proving resistant to this realignment. This shouldn’t be surprising; their politics is a rejection of liberalism, and it has been the utterly dominant ideology since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As yet this group have almost no voice in the public sphere – but could it be about to have its’ first party under Dominic Cummings?
Less dropping hints than hurling bricks through windows, the Sejanus to Boris Johnson’s Tiberius has suggested he may move to open a new party. There is political space and Cummings would certainly be growing crops in fertile lands – but how realistic is this?
The first-time Tories of 2019 had a long path from Labour. New Labour’s focus on attracting the new, middle-class centrist element of their coalition opened a crevice between them and the party. These older, white, culturally conservative Labour voters in the North provided much of UKIP’s growing support from the mid-2000s, as documented in Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford’s Revolt on the Right. Their transition through voting UKIP and for Leave before voting Conservative is well documented.
Having switched so radically over the last decade, they are likely to do so again; once a voter’s tribal loyalty has been shed, they find it easier to switch allegiances. The slow pick up in Labour support in Onward’s research shows their emotional ties have not yet been reforged. So, unless the Conservative colossus stirs once again, there are a huge base of voters after a party to give them a reason to vote.
There is not much competition from alternative parties; Farage may return, but his economic agenda is aligned to Trussonomics and now majorly out of step with the electorate. Richard Tice’s Reform suffers from the same problem – and that it talks too much about ‘woke’ issues. Laurence Fox vehicle The Reclaim Party is barely passably sensible at best. The SDP also exists, but voters know syncretism when they see it. Simply looting both sides of the aisles in the marketplace of ideas does not make for a coherent platform. The SDP has so far failed to put a fully coherent vision for Britain together, which is why it has actually lost ground in the last 20 years – although it has made something of a turnaround under William Clouston.
Cummings will face huge resistance, as he always has, from an establishment that think he is a crank. They’re sceptical about his hype to performance ratio, he thinks they are people of few talents and many words. Starting up a new party is something of a Galilean endeavour, but Cummings’ totally unique ability to discern what’s wrong with government, along with his understanding of the now-abandoned 2019 electorate, means he could be the Fabian to the Tories’ Hannibal. Should he decide to do it, Cummings’ path is laid before him. It will trouble him little that it runs through shadows