Justin Reynolds reviews a new paper by Compass analysing Conservative electoral success in terms of Gramscian political theory. This article was first published by Scottish Fabians.
The political strategies developed by the early 20th century Marxist Antonio Gramsci were designed for the use of the left rather than the right.
Gramsci wrote to assist the European socialist movement of the 1920s and 30s in its struggle against fascism, but an intriguing new paper written for the Compass think tank argues that over the past 10 years the Conservatives – though they might not put it in these terms – have given the left an object lesson in how to develop and implement an effective Gramscian strategy.
Gramsci analysed how political parties and the classes they represent can secure power and go on to establish longer term dominance – or ‘hegemony’ – through the patient building of electoral, economic, social and cultural alliances that allow them to shift the terms of mainstream political debate in their favour, and thus make possible the implementation of their particular ideological agenda.
In The Osborne Supremacy: Why progressives have to develop a hegemonic politics for the 21st century, available as a free PDF download, Ken Spours, an academic at the ULC Institute of Education, interprets the successful strategy the Conservatives have pursued since 2005 in Gramscian terms, and considers the prospects for Labour responding with an effective plan of its own.
Spours argues that the Tories have confronted and worked hard to resolve the same paradox that Labour now faces: the puzzle of how to design a political programme capable of speaking to a sufficiently wide electoral constituency, while retaining an ideological cutting edge. In Gramscian terms, the Tories are currently engineering a ‘passive revolution’, pushing through an aggressive ‘neoliberal’ political and economic programme that nonetheless retains the consent of a significant proportion of voters whose interest isn’t obviously served by it.
Developing the strategy: 2005-10
Spours traces the origins of the Conservatives’ winning strategy to the aftermath of their third election defeat in 2005.
The electoral bloc that had secured four straight Conservative victories since 1979 disintegrated during the 1990s, and collapsed in ruins in 1997. During the New Labour years the Conservatives did retain an electoral base comprising older voters and the asset-rich middle classes concentrated in southern England, but it was too narrow: the Party was unable to speak effectively to the more liberal, cosmopolitan country that Britain had become since Margaret Thatcher first took office, and which after 18 years of Conservative government wanted public services to be rebuilt. During their years in opposition several senior Tories – including William Hague, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo – were acutely aware of the need to recast the Conservative brand to appeal to a wider electoral constituency but were unable to take the Party with them.
In 2005 a new generation of reformers was finally given licence to devise and implement an aggressive modernisation programme.
Crucially, the new team passed the first test of electability: plausibility. Despite their privileged backgrounds Osborne, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and others were bona fide metropolitan liberals with the communications skills necessary to gain the ear of a sceptical electorate. One of the first measures they forced through was the reform of the selection process for Tory MPs, which forced constituencies to adopt candidates more representative of the wider population. Progress has been slow, but there are now many more female, black and Asian Conservative MPs.
Another significant development was the revitalisation of the network of Tory thinktanks that had been so powerful during the Thatcher years. Long-established institutions such as the Bow Group, the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies were joined by a cluster of new centre-right organisations including the Policy Exchange, Reform, the Centre for Social Justice, ResPublica, the Social Market Foundation and Civitas, all backed by a formidable digital network of blogs and online journals.
Assisted by the fresh intellectual firepower at its disposal the Party developed a programme for government that sought to reach out beyond the core Tory demographic. As Spours puts it:
[I]n the period 2005–10 there was a concerted effort to extend the Conservatives’ political and cultural base involving the development of civil society, social justice and environmental political agendas in dialogue with charities, community groups and progressive businesses. It was articulated through the ill-fated but strategically astute Big Society agenda. Symbolic moments included Cameron’s ‘hug a huskie’ trip and Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘Easterhouse conversion’.
Though still difficult for traditional Tories to digest – demonstrated most vividly by the ongoing turbulence over Cameron’s support for gay marriage – the partial liberalisation and greening of the Conservative brand was widely accepted as a necessary stage towards re-establishing the Party’s electoral credibility.
And yet this ‘softening’ of the Tory image was arguably the easier part of the rebuilding process. The greater challenge was to ensure the core Conservative programme retained a radical Thatcherite edge, to work out out how a future Tory government might be able to pursue the Party’s long term ideological objective of extending the market and paring back the state while retaining the consent of a sufficiently broad electoral coalition.
After some initial uncertainty – at first Osborne’s fiscal proposals more or less shadowed those of the Labour government – the 2008 financial crisis opened a window of political opportunity for the Tories to resolve the dilemma.
As a first order crisis of financialised capitalism the crash seemed to have paved the way for the left to finally shift the terms of accepted economic orthodoxy beyond neoliberalism to a revised form of Keynesianism. But the Tories succeeded in convincing the public to interpret the crash as a crisis of government debt rather than freewheeling financial capital. Although Labour’s post-crisis fiscal stimulus and bank bailout had averted depression, Osborne brilliantly exploited public wariness about the borrowing the rescue package had required.
Spours analyses Osborne’s success in shaping the debate in terms of Gramsci’s concept of political ‘common sense’. The Tories persuaded the electorate that debt reduction rather than investment was the most pressing economic priority through the disciplined deployment of down-to-earth arguments and homely images that mainstream voters could relate to. Osborne’s relentless comparison of the stewardship of the nation’s finances with the management of a typical household budget resonated with voters’ ‘common sense’ notions of how their own finances should be organised, and simple accusations such as ‘Labour maxed out on the country’s credit card’ and ‘failed to fix the roof when the Sun was shining’ resonated more strongly than the left’s more complex argument that investment now – with the attendant debt – was necessary to bootstrap economic recovery.
By convincing the public that a future Conservative government was going to need to make ‘difficult choices’ on publc spending Osborne opened the way for the Tories to present an ambitious, ideological programme for rolling back the state as a pragmatic agenda forced by unavoidable circumstance.
Though the road was bumpy, during their first term in office the Tories managed to follow through the fundamental elements of their strategy.
They pushed through a set of liberal policies without allowing their Liberal Democrat coalition partners to take the credit, including the legalisation of gay marriage, the ringfencing of the education and health budgets, and the safeguarding of a relatively generous overseas development programme.
They made sure to implement a range of measures to ensure the continued loyalty of their core electoral constituencies. The interests of older voters were protected by the ‘triple lock’ on pensions, the guarantee of pensioner benefits and the granting of an option to cash in retirement savings. Asset rich voters concentrated in the south benefited from an economic recovery sparked by rising property prices.
But, crucially, these concerns with reaching out to liberal voters on the margins and the shoring up of the core Tory vote were not allowed to interfere with the pursuit of a tough, ideologically-driven economic programme. An aggressive privatisation programme was implemented at all levels of government. A raft of measures to facilitate ever
greater labour market ‘flexibility’ was pushed through. And, notoriously, though its ringfencing of the pensions, health and education budgets limited the government’s scope for making serious inroads into the deficit, deep incisions were made into the welfare budget.
Osborne extended his mastery over the rhetoric of political ‘common sense’ to the field of social security, persuading a public already convinced of the necessity of ‘austerity’ that the welfare budget was a drain on the energies of ‘hard-working people’. The Chancellor boldly sought to claim the concept of ‘fairness’ for the right, playing on voter resentment about ‘shirkers’ hiding behind closed curtains while the ‘strivers’ of ‘alarm clock Britain’ made the effort to get up early each day to participate in the world of work.
The Tory success in May was spectacular vindication of Osborne’s strategy. The Party’s electoral base turned out in numbers, and the liberal measures enacted by the Government were sufficient to help win over swing voters, particularly in the erstwhile Liberal Democratic stronghold of the south-west. And, most significantly of all, much of the electorate voted Tory because of austerity, not in spite of it. In 2015 the Conservatives pulled off the classic Gramscian objective of winning broad support for a political agenda that was not obviously in the interests of many of those who voted for it.
Emboldened by an unexpected Parliamentary majority the Tories are now intent on solidifying the electoral bloc they have painstakingly pieced together into a stable ‘hegemony’.
While taking care to continue to protect their electoral base through the ongoing protection of pensioner privileges and the further safeguarding of assets through the lifting of Inheritance Tax thresholds, the Conservatives are pursuing a bold plan for long term dominance by seeking to supplant Labour as the natural party of ‘working people’.
This summer’s introduction of the ‘National Living Wage’ is Osborne’s boldest move yet, signalling his intention to press full speed ahead – probably as Britain’s next Prime Minister – with the long term Tory project to pare the functions of the state down to ‘essentials’ such as the maintenance of law and order and a defence force, in which social security (with the significant exception of the state pension) would be rendered unnecessary by the development of a high employment economy fostered by consistent economic growth and flexible labour markets in which living standards are secured by enforcement of the living wage.
The National Living Wage is a classic Gramscian move, inspired by ideological and pragmatic motivations. It is a significant step towards the Tory aspiration to roll back the state in favour of the market; and it sends a powerful signal to new and potential Tory voters that the Government is on the side of ‘workers’ rather than ‘shirkers’.
Spours notes two other strands of Osborne’s strategy for broadening the Government’s electoral bloc.
He is investing ever more in his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ project, which seeks to build a Conservative constituency in Northern urban areas. And the Chancellor has become increasingly interested in the possibility of claiming the emerging digital economy as Tory territory. Spours observes that soon after 2005 Conservative strategists such as Steve Hilton started to develop links with tech entrepreneurs in digital hot-spots like London’s Silicon Roundabout. And during the Government’s first term Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude applied some of the insights gained by Hilton et al by cancelling big Whitehall consultancy contracts and creating the widely admired Government Digital Service. The Government is now seeking to encourage the expansion of the ‘sharing economy’, represented by platforms such as Uber and Airbnb that offer new channels for the marketisation and renting of minor private assets like cars and spare bedrooms.
Again, the Government’s interest in the sharing economy is both ideological and pragmatic. It opens a path towards the Hayekian dream of a mass market of small sellers and buyers. And it offers the Tories an opportunity to show they are aligned with the grain of economic and technological change, and so find a way of appealing to the younger, technologically aware demographic that has so far eluded them.
Spours is aware that these imaginative efforts to extend the appeal of the Conservative brand constitute only one side of the Tories’ post-2015 strategy: the ‘darker’ side is manifested by the aggressive measures they are currently pushing through to erode what remains of Labour’s political base:
They have … opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.
It all means dangerous times for Labour. A confident Conservative government is pursuing a disciplined plan to establish their ideological vision of a freewheeling small state market economy as the ‘common sense’ centre ground that sets the parameters of British political discourse, a vision that marginalises Labour as a fringe party representing the interests of ‘parasitic’ public sector workers and the wilfully unemployed.
Fragilities in the Tory bloc
For all the formidable political momentum the Tories currently enjoy Spours identifies some grounds for hope that Labour can respond.
The Conservatives still have some way to go to consolidate their current advantage into a lasting Gramsician hegemony. The Party’s electoral base is still fragile, and though their victory in May was undoubtedly an unexpected triumph it yielded a majority of only 12 seats. For all their attempts to soften the Tory brand and position themselves as the champions of the digital revolution the Conservatives still struggle to connect with cosmopolitan Britain, polling poorly amongst young people and ethnic minorities, especially in London. The Tories are still, in the last analysis, a party of the southern shires and central England: it remains to be seen whether the Northern Powerhouse project will translate to votes, Wales is in the balance, and Scotland, of course, is still resolutely hostile.
Another weak point, ironically given the Tory claim to economic competence, is the ongoing fragility of the British economy. Although the Chancellor has convinced the public – for now – that deficit reduction is the most pressing economic priority the Government’s ongoing failure to address the UK’s chronic structural economic weaknesses leaves Britain dangerously exposed to a future downturn. Reliant on finance capital, rising property prices, debt-fueled consumption and a low wage, low productivity service sector, Britain is a relatively poor performer within the critical fields of industrial and technological innovation. The economy is not delivering for a large proportion of the workforce stuck in poorly paid insecure jobs, weighed down by debt and unable to afford home ownership.
For all the political cunning the Tories have demonstrated over the past decade the Party is still blindsided by its faith in the ‘creative destruction’ of the market, which makes it difficult for them to acknowledge the role an intelligent state might play in facilitating the operation of an effective market economy that delivers for the majority.
The current furore over the clinical removal of the tax credits on which so many lower paid workers depend – the same workers to whom the Tories are trying to reach – illustrates vividly the susceptibility of even a brilliant strategist like Osborne to the blithe expectation that ‘the market will provide’ when state support is withdrawn (though at the time of writing it seems that some kind of concession is under consideration: it would be surprising if Osborne allowed the crisis to continue to escalate).
All these vulnerabilities make it possible to imagine how Labour might begin to formulate a programme with the power to peel away some of the support the Conservatives have assembled. But, as Spours puts it, a successful Labour agenda would require ‘an explicit recognition that the road to power involves the careful building of economic, social and political alliances way beyond its comfort zone. This … entails engaging with the common sense of the population: how people see and interpret life now and not just as you might want them to.’
Like the Tories in 2005, Labour needs to undertake the hard work of understanding what is important to the mainstream British public, and why elements of the Conservative agenda resonate with them.
For example, Labour needs to acknowledge that the Tory vision of a vibrant market economy that offers myriad opportunities for personal fulfilment – not just financial – is attractive to many voters. Millions of people are excited by the prospect of self-employment or of setting up a small business, and are not interested in returning to the world of safe but dull employment in large manufacturing industries characteristic of the post-war social democratic settlement, to which sections of the left look back with nostalgia.
Labour could gain a hearing from these voters not by seeking to rescue them from today’s quicksilver economy but rather by helping equip them with the tools they need to participate effectively within it. Core elements of a modern social democratic economic strategy might include much more extensive support for the self-employed and small businesses, such as readier access to grants and loans, better networking opportunities and training schemes, and the extension of some of the benefits currently enjoyed by corporate employees, such as statutory maternity and paternity leave, paid holidays and pension schemes.
Labour also needs to recognise why harsh Tory rhetoric on welfare cuts through. Osborne’s seemingly risible talk of ‘shirkers’ and ‘strivers’ speaks to the widespread belief that social security should offer a safety net rather than an alternative lifestyle. Taxpayers want the assurance that such benefits are there for them when they need them – formerly well-paid employees who have been laid off are usually appalled by the inadequacy of benefits like Jobseekers’ Allowance – but believe social security should supplement rather than provide an alternative to the world of work.
If Labour is to regain public support for the principal of an adequate welfare system the Party needs to consider imaginative ideas as to how social security might be recast as a springboard for enabling people to engage with greater confidence with the opportunities afforded by a dynamic market economy. For example Labour might look seriously at the possibility of consolidating the myriad means-tested benefits and tax credits that comprise Britain’s byzantine welfare system into a universal basic income (or negative income tax), a flat monthly sum paid to everyone as a right of citizenship that would guarantee an income floor below which no-one could fall. Some such income guarantee would help address the fear of insecurity that prevents so many from being able to participate properly in the market, allowing the left to move boldly – in Gramscian style – onto the right’s territory by seeking to appropriate to itself the language of ‘economic libertarianism’.
A reconceptualisation of welfare along these lines might also allow Labour to position itself – and not Osborne’s Tories – as the party that best understands the opportunities and threats presented by the sharing economy. As several recent books have argued, including Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism and Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, a fundamental challenge presented by the sharing economy is that it is not always easy to see how the goods and services exchanged through it can be monetised: an income guarantee would allow people to participate properly in this precarious new market with the assurance of some kind of financial security.
For Spours the Corbyn phenomenon holds both promise and danger for Labour. He sees Corbynism as a Gramscian ‘primitive political bloc’ that has mobilised several constituencies whose support will be critical to any progressive electoral coalition, including newly energised younger voters, left radicals, the environmentally conscious, and anti-austerians.
But Labour urgently needs to extend its appeal beyond that bloc. The new leadership’s Momentum initiative indicates an appreciation to reach out to a wider audience. It is simply too early to say whether Corbyn’s Labour has the ideological flexibility to build on its core base.
At best, a long, difficult road lies ahead as the party seeks to follow the example set by the Tories in 2005. Now, more than ever, Labour needs to keep in mind perhaps the best known of all Gramsci’s exhortations, the necessity, in tough times, of observing a ‘pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will’.