Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Trouble in Toryland

The problems of Britain's Conservative Party are not unique. They provide a case study applicable to major parties in many places. Which parties in which countries share these problems?

Grassroots trouble: The Tory Party’s problems with its base are part of a broader generational struggle
The members of the Conservative Association in Cheltenham, a lovely Regency town in south-west England, are a mild-mannered lot. But at a recent meeting, voices were raised against “buggery”, “the Spartans” and the coalition government’s effort to legalise gay marriage, which passed the House of Commons on May 21st. Some suspected the European Union was behind this. None liked it…

Mr. Cameron
This is not their only annoyance. Defence cuts, wind turbines, immigration and Liberal Democrats also get the members’ goat—and these views are widely held among Tories. They are not shared by David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, for whom gay rights and environmentalism are important planks of a campaign to “modernise” the party, which he launched on becoming its leader in 2005…

Understandably enraged by these provocations, a group of association chairmen dispatched a protest letter to Mr Cameron accusing him of treating the membership with contempt… Yet, setting the insults aside, it is also inevitable—and indicative of a broader battle in British society.

As in all such conflicts, there is misunderstanding, some sadness and two sides to the story. Most Tory Party members are… a bit creaky and in need of reading glasses. A collapse in membership—which has affected all Britain’s mainstream parties, but the Tories especially—has driven up the average member’s age to around 60. Naturally, most hold views they formed some time ago, when Britain was a more conservative place…

Mr Cameron… correctly divined that, having lost three elections in a row on the right-wing platforms favoured by its members, it needed to change…

What is the answer to this mismatch? One top-level Cameroon sympathises with the disgruntled members… Yet he regrets that they have not been bulldozed more thoroughly… Only, who would then deliver the campaign leaflets? The party’s youth wing is moribund.

The Tories are in a bind. Yet all the mainstream parties are to some extent beholden to Britain’s oldies: because they are most likely to vote…

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