With Labour falling apart, the Liberal Democrats in the wilderness and Ukip searching for a new purpose, the way looks clear for continued Conservative dominance. But the party shouldn’t rest on its laurels just yet.
As the Conservative Party returns from conference, one could be forgiven for falling into the trap of political absolutes. Labour under Corbyn is a laughing stock, with nothing demonstrating this better than the party’s shambolic conference last week. Whether we consider shadow cabinet ministers punching walls, spiralling examples of anti-Semitism within Momentum or the chasm that now exists between Labour’s two parallel groupings, the party is clearly not heading towards government.
Indeed, it is only necessary to look at recent opinion polls to see the weakness of the Labour Party; for the Opposition to poll at 26 per cent in the middle of the government’s term against an unelected Prime Minister is abysmal. Moreover, these figures are likely kinder to Labour than the reality, with the 2015 polls overestimating Labour’s support by around three per cent, and their vote is likely to be squeezed by another fear based campaign against the dangers of a Corbyn premiership. These dangers, combined with the upcoming unfavourable boundary review, make it clear that the Conservatives are the only party that are likely to be in government or with a parliamentary majority for the foreseeable future.
Should the prime minister choose to call an early election it is highly likely that not only will the Conservative Party win, but that Labour will perform weakly all across the nation. Whilst a tempting course of action in order to gain a considerable majority, it also would likely mean a more competent Labour leader than Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, if Theresa May were to have the election when scheduled and wait until 2020, it is quite possible that Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left’s takeover of the Labour Party will be complete. For example, if the rules of the leadership election are changed to allow more left-wing candidates to achieve nominations, combined with a radically altered membership, it is likely that Corbyn will simply be the first in a long line of socialist leaders.
From the Labour Party’s inertia, the path certainly looks clear for continued Conservative governance as far as the eye can see. Nevertheless, this must not be taken for granted. If one lesson can be learnt from the past summer, it is that much of the country is ripe for electoral revolt; holding elites of all sorts in increasing contempt as their hysterical predictions are once again shown to be nonsense. This increasing disenfranchisement combined with the breakdown of tribal political loyalties results in an electorate unforgiving of being taken for granted in the same way that parties undisputedly used to. Indeed, even Mrs May’s dominance in the polls, reaching heights of 39 per cent, is tame compared to voting figures of only a few decades ago, with prime ministers such as Margaret Thatcher easily reaching nearly 45 per cent.
Structurally too, all is not sound in the Conservative Party. A reliance on a handful of extremely wealthy donors means that the party is disproportionately hit when one of these donors defects. Whilst membership is rising again under Mrs May, it is still far lower than the 250,000 members who partook in the 2005 leadership election. Whilst membership is certainly not the only measure of a political party’s success, some level of local and voluntary party infrastructure is necessary in order so that there are not great swathes of the country with no Conservative Party presence.
To reconnect with their base the Conservative Party must turn towards a radical new agenda. By launching a mass membership push (whilst also keeping safeguards to avoid entryism) the party could reinvigorate local membership and campaigning. Moreover, Theresa May’s tack right on social matters such as grammar schools will help excite the membership in a way that many traditional Conservative supporters were not under David Cameron’s essentially centrist brand of government.
The party’s infrastructure is not beyond repair, however. Through engaging with a mass membership, party income can be increased and reliance on very few big donors scaled down in order to diversify party income. Crucially, the Conservative Party’s current greatest strength is Jeremy Corbyn’s poor electoral chances, as opposed to great enthusiasm for the government or the Conservative brand. This must not be relied upon, and the Conservatives must create genuine excitement for their programme rather than simply antipathy towards the alternatives if they hope to keep the political dominance they now have. Mrs May might seem popular now, but with a wafer thin majority, rebellious Europhile MPs and the party infrastructure in a state of decay the Conservative Party should be anything but complacent.