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Owen Jones: Working-class Toryism is dying and it's taking the party with it

Thatcherism's trashing of communities created a culture of anti-Toryism in swathes of the country

Just how do the Tories get away with it? Since they were founded as a modern political force in 1834, the Conservatives have acted as the parliamentary wing of the wealthy elite. When I was at university, a one-time very senior Tory figure put it succinctly at an off-the-record gathering: the Conservative Party, he explained, was a "coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people".

A stunning admission, I thought at the time: but this gravy train for the rich also happens to be the most successful electoral machine on earth. At the turn of the 20th century, many on the left thought that extending the franchise to working-class voters would inevitably lead to the victory of parliamentary socialism. If they knew the Tories would end up occupying 10 Downing Street for two-thirds of the past century, they would have been horrified.

When they were in Opposition, David Cameron put his undoubted PR talents to good use in hiding the true political purpose of the Tories. He spoke about inequality and attacked Labour for "using public servants as scapegoats"; he backed Labour's spending plans pound for pound; he enshrined a new-found Tory love for the environment by changing the party's logo to a tree; he waltzed about the Arctic with huskies and spoke about hugging hoodies. But with the Lib Dems giving Cameron less hassle than the Tory "wets" gave Margaret Thatcher, any pretences about whose interests this Government serves are gone.

Take this week alone. With 3.6 million children growing up in poverty, the Tories have stumbled on an ingenious solution: they will redefine what child poverty is. "It's not all about money," a government of millionaires lectures the growing ranks of the poor. In Opposition, Cameron said relative income poverty did matter, but he is living proof that a political shyster will say anything to get elected. At a time of mass unemployment, Iain Duncan Smith is hectoring parents to get a job as a solution to child poverty, even though more working families are classed as poor than those with no one in work.

The GMB trade union has revealed that almost a quarter of the top 1,000 wealthiest people in Britain have donated to the Tories. Earlier in the week, George Osborne urged businesspeople to redouble their efforts to publicly lobby the Tories for even more tax cuts for the rich, adding: "At the moment, we are having a pretty big argument about the size of the State," revealing that cuts are, above all, an ideological crusade. And Cameron's appearance yesterday at the Leveson Inquiry reminded us of the close links between Toryism and the News International high command. In Opposition, Cameron lectured us about the lawlessness of Broken Britain. Because of his alliance with the Murdoch empire, he now has more people accused of serious crimes in his close circle of friends than the average petty thief.

So how are they getting away with naked class war? The truth is, they are not. Most political commentators pinpoint the Tories' woes on Osborne's omnishambles of a Budget. But British Toryism is in a far bigger crisis than a backlash over a misfired tax on pasties. Every time the Conservatives have won a general election since 1955 has been on a lower share of the vote than the time before. They have not won an election outright for two decades. Even though Labour drove away five million voters in their 13 years in power, the Tories only won a million more than they did when John Major led them to near-oblivion in 1997. The last election was handed to them on a plate: the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s, and a Labour Government competing with cholera in the unpopularity stakes. And yet the Tories still lost (albeit not as badly as the others) with a mere 36 per cent of the vote.

The reason Cameron's cabal are in such a mess is because of a historic crisis of working-class Conservatism. There is a myth that Thatcher was supremely adept at winning over working-class voters. In truth, it was the old-style One Nation Tories who pulled that off most successfully: nearly half the population opted for the Conservatives under the patrician Anthony Eden in 1955. But six out of 10 skilled workers voted against Thatcher in the 1980s, even though their votes were divided between a split anti-Tory opposition.

The trashing of industrial communities under Thatcherism accelerated the ongoing desertion of working-class voters. Over half of Scots voted Tory in 1955: at the last election, they were confirmed as a fringe Scottish party with less than 17 per cent. Merseyside used to be a heartland of working-class Toryism, but the idea that Liverpool once had Tory MPs seems ludicrous today. Conservatives once had a real base in places such as Sheffield and Manchester: they no longer have a single councillor in either city. Thatcherism created a culture of passionate anti-Toryism in large swathes of the country, with the mass unemployment of the early 1980s and early 1990s making the cruelty of Conservatism almost folklore. As Tory policies batter these communities for the third time in as many decades, this contempt is being cemented for a whole new generation.

No wonder, then, that polls reveal how polarised along class lines Cameron's Britain has become. Pollsters divide society into "middle-class" ABC1s and "working-class" C2DEs. It's a crude and inaccurate measure, but it does give us a good indication of the state of play. According to YouGov, the Tories are on just 26 per cent among the C2DEs: Labour, meanwhile, has almost exactly twice as much support. The Tories have almost as little backing from people in the North as they do in Scotland. Toryism faces an existential crisis, because it can no longer muster enough support from working-class people.

No wonder the Tories are so keen to gerrymander constituencies, but it may not save them. Their big hope must be that Labour is unable to mobilise its voters, which is exactly why Gordon Brown's party was defeated in 2010. According to Ipsos MORI, the gap in election turnout between people at the top and bottom almost doubled between 1997 and 2010, to a stunning 19 percentage points. In taking on crisis-ridden Toryism, Labour should look to Barack Obama's "expand the electorate" strategy in 2008 – that is, re-engaging voters who have otherwise dropped out of the political process altogether. To do that, Labour will have to inspire them. They can afford to be more radical than they think. The Tories are in a mess, and they will have to defy history to get out of it.