Theresa May Prime Minister Theresa May in Portsmouth, June 2019. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

With Theresa May slowly becoming something of the past, Katherine Connelly looks to the future

Reasons to be cheerful

Today should have been Theresa May’s last day as Prime Minister, a departure that is long overdue and which has been absurdly prolonged by her decision to remain as “Acting Leader” of the Tories until a successor is chosen.  May was eventually forced to resign, in part because of her own incompetence.  She had negotiated an unpopular deal with the EU which she tried in vain to prevent anyone approving but herself, presumably appreciating it would not get through Parliament.  After her deal suffered the largest defeat in the history of the House of Commons (quite some feat), she proved inflexible; the same high-handed authoritarian of old. 

So obviously personally unsuited to the task at hand, May had become too much of a liability even for the beleaguered Conservative Party. But there were other, more profound, factors that revealed and exacerbated May’s weaknesses.  

Firstly, the result of the 2016 referendum on membership of the EU caused a massive crisis for the Conservative Party. David Cameron had called that referendum arrogantly assuming that it would result in a win for the status quo which (always self-serving) would help him crush the appeal of UKIP inside the Tory Party. But he didn’t appreciate that after six years of devastating Tory-led austerity, and decades of neoliberal assault on working-class communities, there was a huge wave of anger against the ‘status quo’. The social crisis in the country had found an expression in electoral politics which spilled over into a constitutional crisis now that the chosen party of British capitalism was charged with delivering something that British capital stood resolutely opposed to.  

The other element which sealed May’s fate was the advances made by the left. The Labour manifesto that spoke about changing the status quo and Corbyn’s campaigning rallies captured much of the mood for change. The significant gains made by Labour deprived May of a Parliamentary majority and thus a means to railroad legislation through. Since then, many Labour MPs have urged Labour to back a second referendum as a way out. But that would only have provided a (temporary) way out for the government. It would not have stopped austerity, it would not have stopped privatisation, or underinvestment, or the crisis in the NHS or the woeful shortage of housing and extortionate rents. Corbyn’s resistance to backing a second referendum has meant that the call for a general election could not easily be shafted.

Today, then, there is cause for celebration.

Whose election?

But although this is May’s last day as Prime Minister, no general election has been called. It will not be the electorate who choose the next Prime Minister, it will be the membership of the Tory Party. Let’s think about what that means.

According to the Commons figures from March 2018, the Conservative Party had 124,000 members. It is likely to have haemorrhaged members since then.  We don’t really know because the Conservative Party do not publish their membership figures. We might think about why that is.

Although Conservative Party hierarchy are cagey about their membership, we can look to other sources for who these people are.  

Let’s turn to the largest poll ever conducted of Conservative Party members, results of which were published at the beginning of last year by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London. 54% backed bringing back the death penalty, 77% believed that “young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values”, 84% believed that “schools should teach children to obey authority” and 71% called for tougher sentences.  

Only 41% backed gay marriage despite the fact this was legislation introduced under Cameron’s government. Only 19% thought that “ordinary working people don’t get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ – but that was still higher than the paltry 15% who believed that “government should redistribute income from better off to less well off.” One of the report’s authors concluded that Conservative Party members were “a breed apart” from those of other parties.

This study, and the YouGov study of July 2018, show that, in contrast to their elected representatives, the Conservative Party membership were in the majority supporters of a no-deal, “hard” Brexit.

It’s hard not to conclude that in the Conservative Party, the MPs we see in Parliament are the moderate (or at least pragmatic) wing of the party, rather embarrassed by the views of their members who they decline to count or mention very much. And it’s those very members who get to choose the next Prime Minister.  

Unrepresentative of the views of the majority of the electorate, Conservative members are demographically distinct from the majority of people in Britain.  The Mile End Institute report found that 71% of the membership were male, 97% were white British and 86% belonged to the so-called “ABC1”, top economic groups (interestingly only beaten by the Liberal Democrats where the figure was 88% of members).  

That’s not what democracy looks like

This situation is a complete travesty of democracy. It is scandalous that the government managed to hold out against a general election. There are grave constitutional questions to be raised here. Not least, on what basis the government continues. The minority Conservative government was only in office because of a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, brokered by Theresa May. As the DUP refused to vote for May’s key policy (her Brexit deal) and with May now gone, what does this agreement now consist of? 

Why has the government been able to do this?

In 1867, a British businessman and journalist named Walter Bagehot wrote an influential text which tried to describe how the ‘unwritten’ constitution operated in Britain. In The English Constitution, he argued that the unique feature of Cabinet government (of which he was a profound admirer), was its flexibility and dynamism:

Either the cabinet legislate and act, or, if not, it can dissolve. It is a creature, but it has the power of destroying its creators.

This has proved to be an idealised view. The creature may decide that it does not want to see new creations. The Con-Dem Coalition tried to ensure weak governments could not easily be toppled (wonder why?) by passing the Fixed Term Parliament Act in 2011. But even that has proved insufficient as the Tories now adopt a tactic of merely clinging on; though it cannot legislate or act, it refuses to dissolve. The reason is obvious: they are afraid that Corbyn would win the next election and so they have chosen not to have one.  

It is in a crisis that we often get the chance to see how things really work. We are now seeing naked class interest at work as parliamentary niceties, including the much-hallowed precedent, are cast aside when they interfere with that. It would be very foolish to think that politics, for the elites, is confined or determined by what happens in Parliament. The lesson of the past few years has been that crises outside of Westminster have forced the establishment onto the back foot. The demand for a general election must be linked to the kind of changes that we so desperately need to see. If this can be transformed into a mass campaign for democracy, there’s a chance we can win.

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.