Big Tent Ideas Festival, UK, 2017. Credit: Toby Guise
Earlier this year, British conservatism received a sharp shock. From a position of apparent strength, the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election. Having taken over mid-term, she had never received a personal mandate from British voters—and now wanted one to negotiate a strong exit from the EU. But the unthinkable happened: she lost her majority to an insurgent hard-Left, and was forced to form a minority government.
Young voters had flocked to a Labour party which borrows it social media tactics from Bernie Sanders. A full 15 years after Theresa May triggered Conservative modernization by telling her colleagues they were perceived as the “nasty party,” the specter of marginalization is arising again. This week’s Economist calls Labour’s hard-Left leader Jeremy Corbyn “Britain’s most likely next Prime Minister.”
The Conservative response—to reach out to youth voters—has been varied to say the least. The Adam Smith Institute suggested lowering tax on cheap flights and legalizing drugs, using the unfortunate justification that “many of them pop an ecstasy tablet to help them enjoy late night dancing at a club.” It is all a far cry from Labour’s slick and insidious social-media campaign, which packages generational and class warfare for the 21st Century. When youth elements of the Conservative party attempted to reply in kind with an online campaign, it was infiltrated and discredited within a day. The Left’s strategy is firmly in line with Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, which instructed “pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” There follows a dread realization that in the ever-widening binary opposition of youth politics, anything marked “conservative” only strengthens the opposition.
This was the backdrop for the recent Big Tent Ideas Festival organized by UK Parliamentarian George Freeman. Dubbed the “Conservative Woodstock,” this one-day event deliberately borrowed the ambiance of a music festival. As an invitation-only event—with a location only released to guests, for fear of U.S.-style disruption—its purpose was not to attract the public but to renew ideas. The mainly young delegates heard speakers in tents marked “politics,” “economics,” and “society.” Tellingly, the last of these was the largest—with a program that opened with pitches from the founders of two significant charities focused on social exclusion. This theme reflected the fact that accusations of a compassion-deficit are at the heart of Labour’s attack on the Conservatives.
The event’s media panel provided a clue to the success of this strategy: that, when faced with the information overload of modern media, people revert to emotional responses. As such, the lack of “relatability” to conservatism was an ongoing theme. Many non-conservative delegates saw the conservatism as the logical choice—unemployment is falling and the party is engaging with Brexit—but found the cultural barrier insurmountable. This speaks of the successful personalization of politics. Seeking to become like their voters, Hillary Clinton tweets her love of online cat videos and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn becomes vegan. The personal turn allows these media-smart politicians to capitalize on moments of crisis with displays of “relatability” and attacks on the opposition’s lack of relatability. The aftermath of this summer’s deadly tower-block fire in London was a case in point. The Labour leader scored points by clasping hands with survivors—the Prime Minister did not.
The theme of conservative isolation was further reflected in a panel on Millennial disengagement. The communications manager of a progressive centre-right think tank made the astonishing admission that they were not posting about work on social media. “We’ve been bullied off it,” agreed the moderator. The goal of the opposition “seizing the memes of production”—as one Labour poster recently exhorted—is clearly succeeding. And the problem does not stop at social media. A piece appearing the next day in The Times —owned by Rupert Murdoch—opened with snarky references to the “smart casual” dress code and a violin recital of Bach. The mocking tone reflected another of Alinsky’s rules—“Ridicule is mankind’s most potent weapon”—as well as a long-standing strategy to co-opt mainstream, conservative media. But the wider press corps were wrong-footed by the day’s intellectual content. “Skeptics were impressed,” concluded Buzzfeed UK.
That’s because, in spite of the prickly response, a relentless focus on ideas is precisely the right response to the Left’s culture war. Disheartened conservatives should remember that cultural Marxism was born out of weakness not strength—specifically, the failure of Western proletariats to obey Marxist doctrine by revolting during World War One. Since the fall of Communism, the strategy has been pursued with ever-greater vigour as a displacement activity from discussing discredited economic ideas. When British Labour politicians are put on the spot about policy, they often flounder spectacularly. Yet the overall direction of travel in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today at the Labour national convention was clear: towards a Venezuelan-style command economy based on nationalization and authoritarianism. Equipped with this tried-and-failed policy program, it’s no surprise that the party machine diverts as much attention away from economics and onto kulturkampf. By refusing to engage this strategy—and instead directing attention firmly onto clear-minded political solutions that make markets work for all—the Big Tent Ideas Festival is precisely the right type of response.
Toby Guise is a London-based writer and novelist who specialises in political culture on both sides of the Atlantic. His other work can be found here.