The Osborne Supremacy: the unfolding Conservative hegemonic project and the left's response.

Author:Spours, Ken
Position:POLICY AND STRATEGY

Part 1--Ken Spours

The new Conservative hegemony: an evolving ideological and political project

When you have been defeated on the field of battle it is important to ask not only what you did wrong but what your opponent did right. Since the 2015 General Election, there has been a great deal of debate about what Labour did wrong, and much that has been caught up in the leadership struggle. Far less attention has been paid as to what the Conservatives did to cement their victory and, even more importantly, what they are doing now to try to make this victory permanent.

Some six months following an unexpected election victory, the Conservatives' political hegemonic project is becoming clearer. Despite a setback over Tax Credits and having a slim parliamentary majority, the Conservatives are in the process of consolidating their grip on the English political landscape. The party holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and aims to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the 'Northern Powerhouse'. Its ambition is to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party to make them part of a new Conservative political bloc.

Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neoliberal economy and state that have emerged over the last thirty years, but in a new conservative political 'double shuffle': the combining of an ideologically driven neo-Thatcherite economics with the social and civil liberalism that has driven conservative modernisation. In the aftermath of the Conservatives' third election defeat in 2005, social 'reaching out' was symbolised by Cameron's 'hug a huskie' trip and Duncan Smith's 'Easterhouse conversion'. This liberal shift was, however, swiftly combined with an economic right turn as the Conservatives sought to portray the financial crash of 2008 as a crisis of public expenditure. The emergent policy of austerity has since become the organising principle of the new Conservative hegemony, although it is possible in late 2015 to see this being supplemented by a 'security discourse' following the rise of ISIS, the waves of migration from the Middle East and the Paris attacks.

Building the Conservative political bloc

The new Conservative hegemony has been more than a decade in the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they certainly work hard at enacting political domination. In a series of steps and stages, over the past ten years, the Conservatives have effectively mobilised an integrated set of political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development; they are able to appropriate the language of the left and to ride into Labour's geopolitical territory.

Crucially, they show an ability to summon and frame popular common sense through political 'story telling' and the use of everyday analogies, in ways that continue to elude the left.

The Conservative ideological/political formation that has helped to build this strategy includes well-resourced right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the TaxPayers Alliance; and a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. A modernised Conservative Parliamentary Party also provides essential political leadership and has a close relationship with leading think tanks. This ideological and political bloc, and the balance of its different tendencies, is represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron. Seen in terms of the figures that have led UK politics for upward of thirty years, they are binding together English Conservatism around an evolving blend of Thatcherism and Blairism.

Very Machiavellian--the new coercion

Since the election victory, and utilising a veneer of democratic argument, the ideological and social bloc-building phase is now being superseded by a more coercive strategy aimed at cementing electoral advantage and crippling the left as an effective political force. No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have proposed legislation against trade unions, launched attacks on charities with social missions, attempted to reform the Human Rights Act, and are proposing measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. On top of boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) and the attempted imposition of mayoral figureheads that open up electoral possibilities for the Conservatives in northern cities, have now come proposals to curb the powers of the House of Lords following the tax credit reversal. The early social alliance strategy is thus being replaced by a more restrictive and authoritarian hegemonic approach--a relentless pursuit of austerity to engineer a smaller neoliberal state; a focus on the older electorate; appeals to English nationalism and working-class conservatism; the manipulation of the democratic process, and a new accent on security. At the electoral level, the Conservatives aim to incorporate the UKIP surge so that this 'third force' party hurts Labour in the north and not the Conservatives in the south.

Fault-lines in the Conservative political bloc

The conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of 'ramparts and earthworks' geared to fighting successful political and ideological 'wars of position' and increasingly aggressive 'wars of manoeuvre'. This politically and ideologically ambitious formation contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological 'trenches' of Labour and the left, which could be characterised as defensive and reactive, divided, and in a state of serious ideological and political disrepair. The Conservatives' authoritarian and nationalist turn, however, opens up a number of potential fault lines in their political bloc and opportunities for Labour and the left.

Austerity

While the government can regulate the pace and extent of austerity, hubris and ideological commitment could result in political overreach. Pursuing what could be seen as an ideologically-driven agenda--rather than economically necessary measures--particularly those that will result in a sharp deterioration of public services, could quickly fracture support from the social groups that have thus far bought into austerity.

Europe

This is a huge fault line running through the very fabric of the Conservative Party (although it is now overwhelmingly Eurosceptic) and one which increases tensions with sections of its economic bloc. Large companies, in the main, want the UK to remain part of the EU, as does the UK's major international ally, the United States.

The social strategy

The current focus on the older generation, sections of the middle class and the conservative working class could be seen as constituting a social 'holding pattern'. While going with the grain of an ageing society, the Conservatives are not building up support with young people, urban dwellers or (in the main) black, Asian and minority ethnic voters...

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