Voters aren’t just sick of the Tories. The Western model is broken

A polling station signpost lies on the pavement
A polling station signpost lies on the pavement

You might think that the Conservative party is facing a uniquely catastrophic fall in public confidence. But the scale of the collapse in its support is not exceptional – or even particularly remarkable – among ruling Western governments.

In recent years, we have watched time and time again as governing parties and coalitions in the major democracies have suffered either outright defeats or electoral setbacks of historic proportions. Centrist respectability has lost out again and again, often to populist forces. There is a common theme in these rejections of traditional parties and their leaders who had grown almost indistinguishable from one another.

The assumption of the post-war West that the state could provide unlimited resources to insure its population against poverty, ill health and social disadvantage while maintaining a thriving market economy, has reached its endgame.

This is a crisis of the democratic socialism which, in one form or another, has prevailed in all the advanced countries. A great debate had dominated a succession of governing generations: how can you provide what electorates now expect in terms of welfare state security and publicly-run services while permitting the freedom that allows private enterprise (which must fund all of this beneficence) to grow and prosper?

Now, thanks to a peculiar succession of events that included a European war and a pandemic, we have the answer: you can’t. The demand for limitless government support and intervention is simply incompatible with the fluctuations of a market economy which must expand through innovation and individual enterprise if it is to produce the only real wealth there is.

The various formulae which attempted to find an ideal balance between state-guaranteed safety and capitalist risk-taking have been exhausted. State provision has to be financed by capitalist growth and this is now proving impossible. The inflated expectations raised by the former have exceeded the capacities of the latter. And the voters – who are more economically literate than politicians generally give them credit for – understand this.

That is why, although they are furious with the present Conservative government, they are not showing any great enthusiasm for Labour. Hence, the low turnouts and unusually large number of votes cast for the alternative none-of-the-above parties in these local elections.

This disillusion is the real dilemma of our times because it raises fundamental questions about the modern democratic political settlement. I believe it will be seen ultimately to be more significant than the arrival in our midst of an Islamic culture which, had the Western host countries been more robust in their self-belief, could have been handled with little difficulty.

There is a real risk now that, with the disintegration of the old social democratic consensus, there will be a fragmentation of party politics that allows scope for sectarian religious parties to emerge. That would be a horrifyingly divisive development in British politics. This is the worst possible moment for the mainstream parties to lose their grip and their nerve.

So what now? Any solution will have to involve presenting the country with the honest truth. A Tory version could sound something like this:

Let’s have a grown-up conversation. We know that many people have come to expect unconditional support and relief whenever they feel they are in need. There are any number of vociferous, self-serving career advocates who lobby for that cause. But we also know that many of you (probably the majority of the country, in fact) want a flourishing economy that will allow you to earn more and spend more, as well as providing opportunities for your children to prosper. No government can provide both of these things: any party that says it can, is lying. This is, in fact, the reason that Keir Starmer cannot present a plan for achieving it: because he knows that it is impossible.

And the people know that he knows, which puts Labour in the invidious position of seeming to promise what could never be delivered, but then drawing back from that promise with hedged qualifications.

In the most significant election result – the London mayoralty race – Sadiq Khan has won by a large margin. But this result is not an endorsement of Labour as much as it is a condemnation of the Tories in Westminster, and their unwillingness to mount a proper campaign. Had they offered a high-profile candidate, and backed them properly, things might have been a good deal closer.

There is a wider lesson here for Westminster and the coming general election. London may indeed be socially Left-liberal but it is also the country’s economic engine and home to the largest proportion of apirational, eagerly competitive wealth creators of any area in the country. Its ethnically diverse population may be misleading.

Everyone – including the purblind Tory hierarchy – regards the capital as permanently and inalienably a Labour town. But this misunderstands the nature of its population.

Many of the capital’s minority communities consist of ambitious, determined people who run their businesses and practice their professions with pride. They want to succeed and they want their children – whose education is of huge importance to them – to progress upwards in their adopted country.

London is a truly cosmopolitan city but the great majority of people who live in it have important things in common. They are prepared to take on the challenges and obstacles that surviving in a highly competitive economic environment involves. Many of them have come precisely to engage in that competition.

These voters should bitterly resent the obstacles that the Labour mayor has put in their way: making it impossibly expensive to use the cars and vans on which their livelihoods depend, allowing policing to deteriorate to such an extent that the city has become a dangerous place in which to raise a family, and making it quite clear that he is not there to facilitate the wealth creation which is the capital’s indispensable function. It is catastrophic that the Conservative party was unable to capitalise on this.

There is a lesson in this, and in the wider pattern of results, if the party is willing to listen. Here’s hoping it is.

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