July 19, 2005

Why the Notting Hill set opposes democracy in the Conservative Party

Posted by Watlington

What is the defining fault line in the Tory leadership contest? It is not, argues Watlington, over modernisation or tax - but it is the conflict between privilege and patronage on the one hand, and aspiration and merit on the other. Where this divide can be seen most clearly is in the current battle over democracy in the Conservative Party. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

What is the defining fault line in the Conservative leadership contest? Some might argue that it is about lower taxes, others about how far and how fast the party modernises. In truth these are not real fault lines. There is a new consensus amongst all the party leadership candidates both for the need for modernisation and for lower taxes. Of course, there are differences over tactics. David Davis for example - in tune with the Lord Saatchi argument about cutting taxes for the poor - has a strong belief in cutting taxes across the board and as Leader would be likely to set out staunch tax cuts as a core plank of Tory policy.

David Willetts by contrast, is sceptical about Lafferesque economics and would prefer to cut VAT on fuel. Similarly all candidates believe in the need for modernisation in modern campaigning techniques and reaching out to all communities of whatever background. Indeed, David Davis coined the phrase "modern conservatism" in his last leadership effort during the 2001 campaign. Of course the Notting Hill set would go further and obsessively argue that the Tories need their "clause 4 moment" which means that the party must make a dramatic move to show that it is "inclusive", tolerant and accept diversity of lifestyles.

But in truth, these are not fundamental differences and it is likely that agreement could be reached between the relevant party factions.

But, underneath all these arguments, there is a real battle going on and it is one which could define the very nature of the Conservative Party over the next few years. It is a battle between privilege and patronage versus aspiration and merit. In one corner are the Notting Hill set, all from highly privileged backgrounds, Eton, Oxbridge and recipients of vast inherited wealth. They also have the patronage of Michael Howard. In essence, they are the new Tory patricians, the people who believe that they have a divine right to rule the Tory Party and that only they understand and can reverse Conservative Party decline.

In the other corner are David Davis and Liam Fox, candidates who represent aspiration and merit. From humble backgrounds, both have risen to the top of their professions, Davis in the SAS and at Tate and Lyle, and Fox as a respected GP. Of these two, David Davis has the more compelling story to tell as he particularly represents all that modern Conservatism aspires to be. A leader of a political party needs to have had some kind of struggle in their life in order to understand the difficulties that individuals, families and communities face in their day to day lives. Davis has all these qualities and if he can only find the passion in which to tell his story, he could really connect with people across the country.

It is no accident that the many of the MPs who are backing Davis (and Fox to a smaller extent) are also people from modest backgrounds like Nadine Dorries and Shailesh Vara. Nadine Dorries for example, a key Davis supporter, was brought up on a Liverpool council estate and through sheer hard work and determination has built a successful business.

By contrast many of the people backing the Notting Hill coterie are people, whilst personally decent, who have been brought up on privilege and have no real feeling for the struggles that most people face. Boris Johnson, Richard Benyon, and Hugo Swire are not MPs who are likely to understand what it is like to be brought up on a council estate, or for a husband and wife to have to work in the day and in the night, merely to pay the bills.

If anything provides an illustration of the battle between privilege and patronage and aspiration and merit, it is the current battle over Tory democracy.

It is true that a number of Notting Hill set MPs, including Michael Gove, have honourably stood up for democracy in the Conservative Party. Most of the Notting Hill set, however, is determined to remove the rights of Conservative grassroots members to have a vote in the party leadership contest, and to dilute their influence over parliamentary candidate selections. In true "patrician" style, they believe that the grassroots of the party are worthless and that everything should be decided from the centre. They argue that it was the membership that chose Iain Duncan Smith. This is a false argument because it was the parliamentary party that presented the membership with the choice of Ken Clarke or IDS. It was inevitable that the membership would vote for IDS as Clarke would have split the party.

Underlying the Notting Hill set's strategic view is the tactical bonus of weakening both David Davis and Liam Fox. The Notting Hill set know that Davis and Fox would both be extremely popular amongst the grassroots of the party. The Notting Hill set support an MP only electorate in the hope that they can win the leadership by persuading the majority of their chums to vote for them.

Weakening Tory democracy is precisely the wrong way to be going, when every effort should be made to build a mass membership party drawn from all reaches of society. Joining a party should mean real influence and involvement. The surest way to encourage membership to decline is by treating members like fodder, inviting them to the occasional meeting or sham "consultation" or sending them a worthless newsletter from time to time.

It is ironic that the Notting Hill set pays lip service to "localism" ("public services being run by local people") on the one side but is determined to suffocate Tory party democracy on the other.

Fortunately, Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and Michael Ancram (who whilst coming from a privileged background, detests the cliquishness and arrogance of the Notting Hill set) as well as a number of other MPs are leading a rearguard action against the proposals to remove the grassroots from involvement in real decision making in the party.

Aspiration and Merit versus Privilege and Patronage. This must be the modern Tory story. We know who is standing for privilege and patronage but do we know who will stand up for aspiration and merit? Come on Mr Davis, it is time to give the Notting Hill set a run for their money.

To read more by Watlington, see Watlington.

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I wonder if the Tories are not a spent force and a busted flush no matter who leads them, due in part to the increasingly geriatric characteristics of their party members, now averaging close to 70.

I think that the LibDems are maybe a better bet long-term. Tories are economically (classical) liberal and socially conservative -- their brand of economics will find its market again, but the increasingly geriatric party members will not countenance much shift to social liberalism. The Libdems, no matter how much I may dislike them, are already social liberals, with a growing minority tendency toward economic liberalism and that will accelerate as the economy weakens and the balloon bursts.

Posted by: s masty at July 19, 2005 02:56 PM

Is Watlington saying that the Tories new slogan should be "no war but the class war"?

Posted by: David at July 19, 2005 03:01 PM

This piece reminds me of the time during the 1990 Tory leadership election when there were repeated comments and questions about the size of Douglas Hurd's country house. He said something like, "I thought I was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, not some Trotskyite sect". I am sure this class dimension played a big part on the anti-Heseltine Tories choosing Brixton boy John Major over the patrician Hurd, and look where that got them. Maybe a new slogan for the David Davis camp - "Vote Davis and relive the glory days of Major."

Posted by: Jonathan at July 19, 2005 03:06 PM

S Masty - it bears noting that the Tory party have, I believe, a rather greater number of paid-up supporters than do the Labour party, and that Labour's members have a far higher average age.


Posted by: Alexander Van Ingen at July 20, 2005 10:30 AM
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