Gramscian politics for the 21st Century
Conservative political hegemony
My recent Gramscian political analysis has focused on 'understanding the politically successful adversary'. While UK Conservatives appear now to be on their electoral last legs (January 2024), it's worth remembering that they have been in power now for the past 13 years, having undergone no fewer than four major political iterations - shapeshifting - to renew their political project and isolate the political opposition.
Even in a period of near-terminal political decline, the Conservatives have still been able to exert a residual hegemonic political influence by shaping 'the aspirations of Starmerism'. Sir Kier Starmer and his allies within the Labour Party continue to fear a Conservative resurgence and thus dilute their own historical project to win the so-called 'middle ground'. This is even when there appears to be no significant middle ground left, with swathes of the electorate having made up its mind that they want to see the back of the Conservatives.
A dominant yet crisis-ridden Conservative Party thus continues to ideologically disorganise the Progressive Bloc by sowing doubts and creating disillusionment about its reforming intent. The following Compass publications reflect the need to study and understand the adversary, particularly a political party that has proved historically to be so adaptable.
The first analysis of the evolution of modern Conservatism was in the publication The Osborne Supremacy. Written in the wake of Cameron's unexpected election victory in 2015, this Compass report argued that one of the principal reasons for the Tory success was the hard work undertaken by Cameron in the early noughties to socially modernise 21st Century Conservatism and to have then combined this with Osborne's neo-Thatcherite economic strategy of austerity.
Moreover, the Tories had assembled a formidable political and ideological formation comprising Right think tanks, attack organisations such as the Taxpayers Alliance, a friendly media and a more socially modernised parliamentary party.
Using the lexicon of Gramsci, the Tories were building a hegemonic approach in response to wider shifts taking place in political life. The publication proceeded to raise issues for the Left and, in particular, the new phenomenon of Corbynism. The report concluded with the argument that the Left had to develop its own hegemonic project if it was to successfully compete with a rapidly evolving British Conservativism.
The second publication concerned an analysis of Mayism. Following the 2016 EU Referendum and the narrow victory of the Leave Vote, the main feature of Theresa May's Conservatism was the development of a 'soft nationalism' with the slogan 'Brexit means Brexit'. Written in the aftermath of the 2017 General Election and the loss of a Tory majority, this publication focused on both the adaptiveness and fragilities of Conservatism under May. Its main themes included the emergence of a 'regressive alliance' comprising the Tories, UKIP and the DUP and the challenge of Corbynism with its particular brand of 'left populism'.
The first main message of 'Mayism without May?' is that its shift towards English nationalism was laying the basis for the emergence of a new type of English nationalist Conservatism. However, and in retrospect, Mayism could be seen as a transitional political project in which Theresa May herself felt compelled to resign after Tory MPs refused to back her negotiated withdrawal deal with the EU. The second message concerned Corbynism and the argument that it had to adapt to the new post-referendum environment by building a broad progressive political bloc.
During 2019 the adaptive capabilities of the Conservative Party were in full view. In the space of six months they moved from a party in crisis, polling around 25 per cent, to winning the December General Election with 44 per cent of the vote and an 80-seat majority. The key shift was Johnson's (Cummings's) hardline Brexit position in order to plunder Brexit Party votes. Corbyn's Labour, on the other hand, failed to adapt to the nationalist terrain. 'Shapeshifters' is both about Johnson's own mercurial political personality and the ruthless versatility of the Conservatives. This third publication develops the idea of 'Johnsonism' as Thatcherism 2.0 with its blending of neoliberal policies and English nationalism, the seeds of which were sown during the period under Theresa May. The publication concludes with thoughts on the challenges for Labour and progressives more generally in a period following a severe political defeat.