Traditionally their great strength, the ability to adapt has deserted the Tories altogetherby Colin Talbot / October 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
“Broad church” political parties get a bad press. It’s always easy to see them as divided, incoherent, or to portray their more extreme elements as representative of the whole and thereby condemn them.
But there is one big advantage of diversity within a political party—the ability to adapt and survive. Why? Because of the “law of requisite variety” which tells us that for any system (for which read party) to survive it needs sufficient internal variety to respond to whatever changes occur in the world around it.
The Tories have been one of the most successful political parties of modern times. They have survived, and succeeded, by adapting many times over their almost two centuries of history.
The Tories adapted to the rising demand for enlarging the franchise under Disraeli. They adapted to the NHS and welfare state under Churchill and came back in 1951 to rule for another 13 years. They adapted to the social reforms of Tony Blair’s government under David Cameron and came back, briefly, to a majority in 2015.
But the ability to adapt seems to be deserting the Tories.
There are two factors that determine whether a party can adapt successfully. The first is a degree of ideological diversity and pragmatism. The Tories have transformed from a pragmatic pro-EU party over the past 40 years (it was, after all, the Tories who took the UK into Europe) to being led by a fixed, intransigent, leave-the-EU-at-all-costs view. (Labour is going through its own transformation into an ideologically homogenous party, but that’s another story).
But it is not just ideology or pragmatism that determines whether a party can successfully adapt—it’s also the party’s architecture, its basic structures and systems, that allow it to pick up signals from the electorate and its environment that it needs to change.
The Tory party’s architecture is crumbling. Its membership has dwindled and is now around 125,000 (see this by Tim Bale and colleagues). The average age of Tory members is somewhere between the upper 50s and the lower 70s. Bale told me that “their brand problems mean they’re going to find it difficult to attract younger members, especially younger female and ethnic minority members.” A demographically and culturally unrepresentative membership is never going to provide the feedback the party needs to broaden its appeal.
It is not just the membership that is problematic, the Tories’ organisational architecture is also falling apart. Successful adaptation relies on functioning “feedback loops” that enable a party to understand what is happening and respond to it. The Conservative Party’s mechanisms for doing this are withering away.
After the 2017 election catastrophe a detailed analysis by Mark Wallace for the ConservativeHome website of the Party’s HQ showed its incapacity to process the signals it was getting from the grassroots. They couldn’t adapt because they didn’t really know what was happening on the ground.
The breakdown, and especially the failure of “detection and feedback,” is neatly summarised by Wallace: “Concerns and criticisms… were communicated to the centre by members, candidates and MPs during the campaign itself. But the machine insisted on sticking to its plan and insisted that the ground operation followed suit right to the last moment.”
Other parts of the Tory ecosystem are also falling apart. Its relationship with business is under immense strain, if it’s not fractured already. Those driving Brexit, and effectively party policy, simply reject important signals they ought to be adapting to.
In short, the architecture of the Tory Party is starting to look less like a sturdy building and more like a Potemkin Village—a façade behind which lies… not very much at all. The mechanisms that ought to allow it to detect change are decayed. The Tories’ current slim lead in the opinion polls is fragile and has more to do with a reaction against Labour’s lurch to the left as any positive goodwill towards the Conservatives.
There is no obvious mechanism for rebuilding. The party’s old, shrunken, mostly white and comfortable membership are unlikely to accept the changes needed to modernise the party.
David Cameron may be the last Tory leader to attempt to adapt his party to the realities of the modern world. Not only did he fail, but arguably his attempted modernisation on cultural issues like gay marriage helped fuel the rage of the Brexity members against change. Failure to adapt successfully means failure to survive. The bright shiny Potemkin Village looks alright for now, but it may not last for long.