Is Party Ideology Still Relevant?
Ideology, it seems, used to be the basis not only of individual world views, but of entire political parties. But is this really the case anymore? Are British political parties today still ideological in nature? Or have they turned to more personalized, pragmatic, even opportunistic avenues? This question sprung into my mind recent while listening to Elizabeth Truss talk about her own interpretation of conservatism. I could not help thinking that her conservatism was born of a time when the manifesto captured a party’s ideological position in a way that would be unfamiliar to the electorate of today.
Of course, it would be naïve to think that political parties, especially in this country with its essentially bipolar system, can afford to be ideologically narrow; both Labour and the Conservatives are broad churches. To extend the metaphor, there will always be members of the congregation who prefer to sit in the back and who will disagree with much of the sermon. But even amongst dyed-in-the-wool party members on both sides, many would have little difficulty in pointing to policies and directions that they disagreed with. Despite this, both the Conservatives and Labour have traditionally been able to find an ideological middle ground. However, I do not think this is enough anymore.
In previous decades the parties’ manifestos laid out their respective ideological positions clearly and as a result attracted the voters who identified with those positions. This has changed dramatically in recent years. We only have to look at the 2015 and 2017 elections to see the dramatic increase in personalized and social media-driven campaigns. Theresa May took to Twitter to an admirable attempt to connect with a younger demographic who would no longer be enticed into the polling booth by expansive and ideologically driven manifestos. The most recent election truly marked a watershed moment in terms of the way the Conservative party saw itself. The campaign that was launched in late April 2017 was focused primarily on ensuring that the Conservatives were the party to deliver Brexit. Ideology was left by the wayside.
What makes throws this apparent ideological decline in the Conservatives into sharp relief is the fact that it is completely at odds with the what we see other parties doing. Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, Labour has been moving ever further to the left with an agenda built on nationalization of industries and bringing an end to austerity. Even UKIP seem to have found something else to campaign against after effectively winning their battle on Brexit with the vote on the 23rd of June.
But is this criticism perhaps a little unfair? After all, May not elected only by her party to implement its policies, but by the nation to deliver Brexit. She is not there to define the party line for decades to come in the way that many other PMs - one recalls Disraeli, Churchill, Thatcher - did in the past. Her policies have aimed largely to ensure that Britain is as stable as possible to ensure a smooth transition following its exit from the EU in March 2019. It will be down to her successor to attempt to construct a new image for the party, and to return it to a solid ideological basis that is clear, well-founded, and recognizable.
I would still maintain however, that whoever replaces May after her own exit from the party leadership will have to engage - sometimes muscularly so - with the emerging online ideological forum that is social media. These platforms are fast becoming the new ‘manifestos’ for the ever-broader church of Conservatism. It is easier in the closely connected world of today, to log on to Youtube, Facebook, or Twitter and discover a world of ideological positions and single-issue causes that speak to voters on a far more personal and specific level than any manifesto could.
Is the Conservative Party ready to fully enter the digital age? Can it engage with voters on the new, personal level that they have come to expect? Will it be able to get across the Conservative message in this new chapter of British politics? These are the questions that we should be asking ourselves as Conservatives. Conservative ideology is not in decline, but our current methods of communicating that ideology are outdated, redundant, and increasingly ineffective.