Published on October 7th, 2013 |
by Eleanor Newis
Image © OJWilliams8 2010
So, who went to this year’s Conservative Party Conference? Who bought the Thatcher memorabilia and the “Beware the socialist serpent” postcards being sold in the exhibition hall? Well, 2% international, 4% event support, 20% media: the two biggest groups at the conference were 38% party members and 36% commercial or charity exhibitors. This means that the Conservative membership took up barely a third of the conference audience, and corporate lobbyists almost equalled party members. Looking at the membership of the party, we find that from 2.8 million members in 1953, the Tories have now shrunk to 134, 000; the average age of a Conservative party member is now 68 years. Now, there is a point to be made that party membership in general has declined recently, that many choose simply to vote for a party rather than commit to membership: but still, it does make the 2013 conference look rather like an elite networking event. And this fits with the rhetoric of the conference – in 2013 Cameron is no longer messing around with “compassionate Conservatism” or “vote blue and go green”, but instead responding to the growing pressure of UKIP and forming policy that is well, Conservative.
There is a question, though, as to what “Conservative” actually means in 2013: at the conference this year, Cameron answered in no uncertain terms. Osborne has announced plans to make life tougher for those out of work, demanding they sign into a job centre everyday and withdrawing benefits from under 25s who are unemployed. He also said that he would fight the EU in court for the rights of bankers to receive big bonuses, which follows rather neatly from the scrapping of the 50p tax rate for the super rich last year. All these policies prove that the Conservative party is taking the interests of the city very much to heart, which seems both predictable and odd at the same time. Predictable because the Tories have always viewed the market as not so much the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, but as a magic hand dealing out riches, poverty and social status as deserved. Yet surprising in today’s climate, when 20-25% of Conservative party members believe that big business benefits at the cost of workers, and agree that in the UK there is one law for the rich and another for the poor, according to a survey by political scientist Tim Bale.
Cameron’s Conservatism is no longer pandering to party members then, but to big business. Initially, this would seem foolish – does the man not know he needs to get elected in 2015? But consider the financial reality of the Tory party. During the last general election, more than half of the Conservative party’s funding came from the city, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. When Cameron won the Tory leadership in 2005, 25% of funding was from the city: a significant increase in bankers’ money has been developing in the Conservative party throughout the last decade. When party membership is declining, funding must come from somewhere; suddenly, those city-focused policies start to make sense don’t they? It remains to be seen how far this strategy will go for Cameron’s Conservatives: in 2011 the contract to run NHS Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire was given to Circle, a company part-owned by hedge funds run by three of Cameron’s biggest contributors, Paul Ruddock, Crispin Odey and Michael Platt. None of whom, it would seem have been prosecuted for tax avoidance – I’m just saying.
In the aftermath of the 2013 Conservative party conference, it would then seem that Cameron’s strategy for 2015 is to join rather than beat big business and the city. As his membership declines, money for the – usually rather impressive – Tory election machine must be found somewhere, and if the war-chest must be coaxed from the coffers of bankers and bartered for with tax-payers’ living standards, then let it be so. But Cameron, be careful. UKIP are fast approaching, and though they might look insane and contradictory – being the party that is effectively attempting to take down the EU from inside – they are at least free from the hordes of dirty money piling up in Conservative HQ. Yes, Conservative voters like markets and competition, and a tough approach to welfare, but will they stand by Cameron as he retreats more and more into his hedge-funded world? With the policies announced at this year’s conference, the floating voter is no longer Cameron’s aim. Thus, he must appeal to his own members as much as to his funders, or risk losing votes for failing to keep his feet on the ground. If Cameron is going to run to 2015 with a blue banner and “proper” Tory policy, then excellent – a bold strategy that makes for an interesting election. But if he is planning to be lazily pushed along by the city, he should beware: even bankers can only vote once.
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