Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Why the Conservatives will always advocate economically damaging socially conservative policies


A constant theme of UK politics, and politics in many other countries, is how parties that are right wing on economic issues have attempted to win elections by appealing to social conservatives. Sometimes this is because party leaders are genuinely socially conservative, but sometimes it is simply a political tactic. We know, for example from this study by Tim Bale and others for UK in a Changing Europe that in 2019/20 Conservative MPs were more socially liberal than the average voter, and far more liberal than the average Conservative voter. But that liberalism was not reflected in the party’s agenda.

Not all social issues are equal in terms of being able to attract socially conservative voters. In the UK the right wing media may constantly obsess about woke attitudes, but most voters are not even sure what woke means, still less prepared to cast the vote on this basis. Two of the issues that are potent for social conservatives are nationalism (including sovereignty) and immigration. Yet, as recent experience in the UK has shown, mainstream Conservative parties or politicians that pursue either issue will find it can (and perhaps inevitably will) backfire, because in both cases any policies that significantly reduce immigration or increase national sovereignty will have negative economic consequences that enough voters will at some stage find intolerable.

In the case of sovereignty the obvious example is Brexit. It is now clear to many voters who voted Leave that ‘taking back control’ has an economic cost, despite promises made at the time that it wouldn’t. There is a very simple reason for this. Those who originally pooled sovereignty through the EU did so largely because it would result in economic benefits, the evidence suggests that it did and the logic of those decisions hasn’t changed over time.

Reducing immigration also has economic costs, which is a major reason why Cameron/Osborne were not serious about meeting their immigration targets. Yet their tactic of setting targets but not achieving them was disastrous (for them and the country) because if you tell people reducing immigration is really important and fail to do anything about it, people who voted for you to reduce immigration will start looking elsewhere for another party that will.

We also see the cost of reducing immigration with Brexit. Although headline levels of immigration have risen since Brexit, there has been a deliberate reduction in unskilled immigration (with exceptions for areas like health and social care or fruit picking). The subsequent labour shortages in specific areas made headlines, and the stories that immigrants would be quickly replaced by non-immigrants has shown to be false. A shortage of unskilled labour was one factor behind the UK’s high inflation rate. Indeed the public’s attitudes to immigration have become more favourable since Brexit, and this may partly be due to this experience.

One of the reasons immigration is currently so high is an increase in students from overseas, but again attempts to limit those numbers will have a direct economic cost. The money overseas students pay for their course is an export of services for the UK, which helps us import more of the overseas goods we want at a cheaper price. These economic costs of controlling immigration are why Theresa May had to resort to a ‘hostile environment’. But that has a cost too (although more hidden), if it deters immigrants who would benefit the UK economy. Nearly all economists view immigration as beneficial to the economy and innovation.

Most recently the government has attempted to replace general immigration with asylum seekers as a demonstration of their social conservatism. But here too the economic costs are there. For example researchers at the National Institute have recently calculated that the economy could gain £1.6 billion, and the government finances far more, by giving people seeking asylum the right to work.

With both national sovereignty and immigration, therefore, a trade-off exists between satisfying social conservatives and economic prosperity. The latter is important not just in itself, but because it enables another goal that seems central to Conservatives, which is lower taxes.

Initially the use of sovereignty and immigration as political weapons appeared to be a master stroke for the Conservative party. It eventually led to an emphatic General Election victory in 2019, when the ‘Red Wall’ of former Labour seats fell. But that political high soon led to current lows, as Brexit turned out to be the economic disaster anyone with any sense had predicted, so that when a cost of living crisis emerged polling suggested the Conservatives would lose the next election and a large number of their MPs.

If the Conservative party does become the official opposition after the next election, will the disaster created by pursuing an anti-immigration, pro-national sovereignty agenda lead to any second thoughts among MPs and leadership contenders? Will they recognise that their strategy, which really began in 1997, of trying to win elections by appealing to social conservatives as much as (or perhaps more than) those on the economic right contained the seeds of its own destruction?

One way to answer this question is to divide the party up into different factions, as Robert Shrimsley does here. It is certainly true that some Conservative MPs are very socially Conservative, and will want to increase national sovereignty and reduce immigration whatever the economic costs, but as we noted earlier most are not. Nearly all Conservative MPs are also Thatcherite, and want lower taxes as well as less regulation and less government generally (defence and law and order aside). Those who are naturally more socially liberal may begin to appreciate the conflict between more sovereignty/less immigration and the ability to cut taxes.

Yet there are fundamental interrelated reasons why the disaster of appealing to the anti-immigrant and national sovereignty voter is unlikely to deter Conservatives from repeating the tactic in opposition. The first reason is that the alternative, of just focusing on economically right wing voters, is not going to be enough to win unless the party moves to the economic centre, and this is unlikely given the typical Conservative MP is very right wing in economic terms. It is a refusal to move towards the economic centre ground that requires a focus on social conservatism.

The second reason is the influence of money, either directly through cash or indirectly when money is embodied in newspaper ownership. I have argued in the past that the party has become the representatives of the 0.01% who are the very rich. Money and newspaper backing is vitally important to potential party leaders to win the votes of party members, and also important in winning elections. Money will tend to flow to those who most serve the interests of the very rich, which is how very right wing economic views (as well as a lot of corruption) tends to thrive in the Conservative party. (Those who think the interests of the very rich are identical to the interests of corporations, and therefore neoliberalism, should read this.)

Third, there are many within the Conservative party (many members, and some MPs) who really are very socially conservative, and want the party to lead on these issues not because it’s a useful tactic, but because they believe in national sovereignty and ‘control of our borders’. Perhaps National Conservatism represents this group, just as Braverman certainly does if she really dreams of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. This group, like the ERG before them, find it easy to make a lot of noise and, more importantly, are prepared to threaten to defect to Farage like parties should the Conservatives ever abandon their anti-immigration, pro-sovereignty agenda. It will take the most dire circumstances, like several election defeats in a row, to keep them quiet.

I used to think that the Conservative party could change into a party that was more centrist in economic terms, and less strident in its social conservatism, if it suffered a long enough succession of general election defeats. Cameron might appear to be the model for that (remember hugging a hoodie), but in fact he was not. First, he required a Global Financial Crisis to defeat Labour (and even then he also required a coalition with orange liberals). Second, he did not move to the economic centre ground. As I argued here, Cameron/Osborne had learnt nothing from the New Labour years, and instead tried to carry on where Thatcher left off, with disastrous results. Third, Cameron both retained lower immigration as a key pledge, and was happy to push national sovereignty when it suited him.

The real lesson of Cameron’s defeat of New Labour is that if you wait long enough, and flaunt what few socially liberal tendencies you have so that the media can pretend you are something you are not, then a party that promotes the extreme right wing interests of the very rich together with an anti-immigration, national sovereignty agenda can eventually gain power because voters either get bored with a Labour government, or a crisis engulfs that government, or both. For that reason, coupled with everything I set out earlier, it is difficult to see the Conservative party changing its current character. That in turn will mean that any future Conservative government, like the one that has ruled for the past 13 years, is bound to be a party that sacrifices living standards for socially conservative goals. [1]

[1] I would also argue that economic policies which tend to promote rent seeking (gaining money by taking it away from someone else) by the already wealthy ahead of promoting general prosperity and welfare (through innovation and investment) have a similar effect, but that is a different argument that I alluded to here. It is similar to the idea of inclusive and extractive institutions set out by Acemoglu and Robinson in “Why Nations Fail”. Governments that promote the interests of the already wealthy (a plutocracy) will focus on rent seeking: extracting wealth from society towards the wealthy. Governments that promote the interests of society as a whole will look to increase overall wealth, and so will tend to promote policies that increase overall welfare. Neoliberalism, that promotes the interests of corporations, falls somewhere in between (corporations can invest or pay dividends), but as I have argued here neoliberalism can easily degenerate into a form of plutocracy.

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