Since the advent of New Labour in 1997, a common trope of general election campaigns has been the (invariably unfulfilled) promise of a new way of doing politics. Given the current state of flux in British politics, the 2017 general election seems to offer party leaders a ripe opportunity to “forge a bold, new confident future”, as prime minister Theresa May once said.
But what is striking about the Conservative manifesto is the absence of any alternative vision of how politics could be different in the post-Brexit era. There is unerring adherence to the traditional nostrums of British politics. We find an unwavering faith in the ability of the centre to govern, even in the face of multiple social, economic and political challenges.
At the heart of the manifesto lies a paradox. Despite the explicit rejection of the egoism and excessive individualism that came to characterise the Thatcherite legacy, it adopts an almost singular focus on one individual – May as prime minister.
The aim of the Conservative campaign, above all else, is to place her front and centre. She is to be elevated above the machinations of party politics. She is presented as trans-ideological. She is steering a course through dangers of the “socialist left and the libertarian right”.
The repetition of “strong and stable” leadership is the dominant theme of the Conservative campaign (in case you missed it). It perpetuates the cult of leadership in British politics. Despite the supposed communitarian principles of the May doctrine there is no appeal to collective government, let alone greater public engagement or participation. There is little concern with imagining a new collective purpose on behalf of the state or a social contract between the citizen and the state.
Is this change?
That’s not to say the Conservative manifesto is devoid of analysis. It acknowledges the decline of public confidence in politics, institutions and representative democracy itself. Indeed, May has been credited with looking beyond the obvious eurosceptic rationale in order to understand the more nuanced reasons underlying the Brexit vote in last year’s referendum.
The result of that vote was a symptom of a rising climate of anti-politics. Although a somewhat nebulous term, anti-politics is used to capture the disconnect between the citizenry and conventional modes of politics. It’s often invoked to characterise two types of groups: the affluent, mobile, liberal cosmopolitans and the disaffected, marginalised “left behinds”. The experiences and attitudes of these two groups have been pitted against each other ever since the referendum. The Conservative manifesto is an unashamed pitch to the latter – the working class voter.
The manifesto itself complains that the Conservatives have been unfairly caricatured as indifferent to social injustice and inequality. It has been heralded as marking a break with both the Thatcherite legacy of stark neoliberalism and the aloof elitism of “posh boys” David Cameron and George Osborne.
It rejects the “untrammelled free markets” of global liberalism to emphasise a belief in the ties that bind us together – nation, family and community. It’s certainly different in tone, if not substance, to the metropolitan liberalism of Cameron.
Moving further into the rhetorical terrain of the Labour Party, the manifesto also declares a belief in the virtues of active government to bring about progressive change in the “common good”. But Conservative leaders have always vacillated between libertarian and interventionist tendencies. Far from being novel, this merely entrenches some of the deep pathologies of British politics. It privileges leadership over democracy and it fails to reimagine the role of the state in the 21st century.
Too strong, too stable?
May’s answer to apparent democratic malaise is to reaffirm faith in the status quo. Her manifesto outlines plans to strengthen the Westminster government by repealing the fixed-term parliaments act. It suggests extending the majoritarian first-past-the-post system to regional elections for police and crime commissioners and metro mayors. It offers contradictory messages. While respecting the existing devolution settlements and “envisaging” more decentralisation of powers after Brexit, the manifesto also promises an “active government, in every part of the UK”.
May has also issued a shot across the boughs of the House of Lords. The manifesto includes an implicit warning against repeating the events that surrounded the Article 50 bill in March. While the manifesto states Lords reform is not a priority, it says the “primacy of the House of Commons” must be respected. The message is clear – any more attempts to “frustrate” the Brexit negotiations could see it swiftly rise up the government’s agenda.
This effectively translates as executive dominance in the “elective dictatorship” of British politics. It is a deep irony that a series of events initiated by the Leave vote last June, interpreted as a howl of populist rage against the establishment, has been met with an elite, top-down process driven by a small coterie of ministers and officials in Westminster.
It’s a manifesto that offers no solutions to engage people in politics, either through education and outreach or via reform of institutions or decision-making. Indeed, one of the few innovations – the introduction of compulsory voter ID – will only serve to erect a new barrier to participation, especially for already marginalised groups.
All this is an exercise in power hoarding par excellence, in the finest British political tradition.
In place of reform, the Conservative manifesto seeks to appeal to “the obligations and duties of citizenship”. The aim is to reestablish a sense of civic allegiance and deference to traditional authority and conservative values. This may play well in the short term given the anxiety and uncertainty over Brexit. It’s unlikely, however, to be able to address the more longstanding problems within the British polity. The Leave vote was a symptom of those problems, not the cause. We would do well to remember that continuity is not the same as stability.