Whether of a progressive or a nostalgic hue, the arguments of local exceptionalism have won out over the cold logic of globalisation.
It would be a mistake – and one made both by the mainstream media and in the wounded anger of the old left – to see Conservatives as being all the same. Despite the millions poured in to the campaign as corporate donations, despite the rhetoric around “the party of the rich”, the party sinks or thrives on their local associations.
Lynton Crosby’s campaign played into the preoccupations of the old and the frightened who make up this dwindling band – above all economic stability and sovereignty. This was a counter-factual set of arguments: even George Osborne had given up on the actuality of austerity by 2012, and David Cameron has committed himself to making the argument to stay in the European Union. All of the major campaign announcements, from the rail fare caps and the mild but unmistakable anti-corporate rhetoric to the extra money for the NHS, addressed the concerns of this party member demographic.
New Conservative candidates were, for the most part, drawn from a pool of local activists – the list was notable for an absence of SpADs and party researchers. The election day story a few of us spotted – on the Tory campaign database issues – was less of an difficulty than we expected, and may even have been a positive factor . This was about local knowledge, often personal knowledge, of a constituency. The lack of central campaign control via VoteSource and centrally imposed candidates, far from being a disaster, may well have been key.
Most coverage so far (it’s a little after lunch on Friday 8th) has portrayed the SNP landslide in Scotland as an entirely separate trend – not so. Scottish Nationalism is also a locally-based movement based on a network of local activists. After the recent and intensely fought referendum campaign, these are activists with a close understanding of their constituencies. The difference is the direction of the trend. The local Conservative party membership is shrinking and will continue to shrink. Though this is a minor triumph of old fashioned local Conservatism, it may well be the last – and the major triumph of the SNP will likely be much longer lived.
So two of the three major parties in Westminster are there on the strengths of MPs with particularly strong links, and strong accountability, to their local party. Far, far more difficult to control – especially when it comes to controversial issues that play against the local party concerns – than the phalanx of machine politicians all parties have been previously been criticised for.
Ed Miliband, to be fair to him, has invested a great deal of time and effort into growing and sustaining the party base. Labour has a growing membership and a base of young activists who – whilst not as encouraging as the spectacular growth of the SNP and the Greens. He’s spoken about localism, and here (as on many things) his instinct has been right. This time the national party didn’t trust them to campaign without control. Maybe next time will be different – but don’t the left always say that?
A very quick prediction of the work of the second Cameron administration.
- The contradictions inherent within the Conservative party, and even within the manifesto itself, will become increasingly more apparent.
- Cameron’s own unpopularity with local party associations will be damaging. His “one nation” philosophy will be against the mood of the party.
- It will be difficult for him to pass legislation and make arguments that are pro-corporate and supra-national. The EU referendum is an obvious example. Rebellions will be even more common than in the last government – and actual or threatened defections to UKIP may be a factor in this.
It is too early to think about the future of Labour and the left – suffice to say I feel Ed Miliband was wrong to resign at this stage as I think he would have been well placed to do the difficult job of opposing the government effectively whilst leading the required internal debate. I’m sure I’ll write more about this in the weeks to come.
I would, however, predict another election earlier than 2020.