Reports of the death of the Tory party are exaggerated, writes Steve Van Riel
Last month, a poll by ComRes found that 52 per cent of the public agreed with the idea that ‘the Conservative party is unlikely to win the next election.’ For Labour supporters, that number stood at 74 per cent. Meanwhile, an ICM poll in May told people the parties’ share of the vote at the last general election and then asked them to predict the next one: half of those asked thought that the Conservatives’ share would drop by seven percentage points if there was an election tomorrow.
Now, shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett has taken this confidence one step further and published his analysis of the ‘existential threat’ facing the Conservative party. Without those polls as a context, the idea that the Conservatives are threatened with losing purposeful existence might seem eccentric. The Tories could suggest that compared to the flailing Liberal Democrats and a Labour party which achieved its second-worst result since 1918 only two years ago, existential threats were something others should be more worried about. But, instead, Trickett’s 10-page report was linked to from the conservativehome website, right underneath an article by Lord Ashcroft, former deputy chair of the Conservative party, warning that the Tories ‘badly need a sense of direction’.
The budget this year was the cue for everyone to give the Tories a bit of a kicking. A government that had defined itself around the idea that it would take painful but necessary decisions was seen as giving an unnecessary indulgence to its biggest supporters in the form of a cut to the 50p tax rate. This opened the door to hundreds of grievances being voiced. Isolated rows, U-turns and mistakes then started to be put together into ‘worst week for the government’ stories that, in turn, lowered the bar for the next ‘government in crisis’ headline.
But even if the latest set of unforced errors recedes, Conservative politicians still sound like people determined to hold on to the voters they won in 2010, rather than appearing desperate to win over the voters who did not back them then but who they would need to achieve a parliamentary majority. So, assuming that Labour and Liberal Democrat peers see off the threatened boundary review, should we be booking the Royal Festival Hall now for the victory party in May 2015?
A few notes of caution. While unpredictable events can hit a government they can also lift one: after David Cameron’s European treaty ‘veto’ last December the Conservatives led Labour in the polls for a while. The Liberal Democrat collapse is not necessarily all good news, either: in many Tory-Liberal Democrat contests, Liberals deserting their party for Labour could help the Tories unless the kind of swings envisaged by Progress’ ‘Third Place First’ campaigns materialise. Scrutiny of Labour’s offer to the country is currently very light – just as it was when the Conservatives were in opposition – because, no matter how good or bad the party’s promises are, there will be about 900 editions of each daily newspaper before these polices could possibly affect anyone. But it will get much tougher before a general election campaign is over.
That is all before the Tories get involved. The prime minister and George Osborne have a record of unsentimentally – some might say cynically – adapting to new circumstances. When his campaign for the Conservative leadership was lacking energy, Cameron made an atavistic pledge to leave the European People’s party that went against his modernising message but helped get him over the finishing line. After spending two years ruling out upfront tax cuts, hugging hoodies and keeping quiet about Europe, the Tories promised an inheritance tax cut, warned of a ‘broken society’ and offered a referendum on Europe when things began to look difficult for them in autumn 2007. The Tory lead weakened during late 2009 and early 2010 when the Conservatives were at their most fiscally hawkish. Osborne’s response was an unfunded but popular proposal to stop a national insurance increase. If it looks like they are going to lose in 2015, all the indications are that Cameron will fight very, very hard to stay in No 10.
Why, then, are senior Labour figures writing 10-page documents on how bad the Tories are doing? Or, you might equally ask, why have I just devoted a couple of paragraphs to qualifying such an argument? For reasons I can never quite work out, we sometimes have a proxy debate in the Labour party where different political strategies are interpreted as code for different political principles. The conclusion of Trickett’s paper is that, because the Tories are in trouble, we can now end ‘triangulation on Tory territory and … establish [Labour’s] own independent identity based on our abiding values of community, justice and equality’. I do not think, however, that Trickett’s beliefs are dependent on what the Conservative party is doing: I would expect (and respect) that he would argue for exactly the same position even if he thought the Tories were currently dominating British politics.
I am no different: when people say ‘Labour needs to win back the south’, I applaud but not because I have got a particular sentimental attachment to Thurrock. It is because I think it means we are going to talk about promoting aspiration and protecting people from crime. When polls are published showing that the public want us to be credible on fiscal policy I take it as an endorsement that my politics are smart politics. But give me the opposite data and, just like Trickett, I am more likely to say that it means we need to campaign harder on my position than I am to go into reverse.
The first problem with this tendency, which is shared across the party, is that if you do not know the code it is confusing. Is the centre of the party really the only people who care about what life is like in Essex and is the left the only people who want to increase voter turnout? Of course not.
But even if you do know the code, these proxies are never as interesting as debating what Labour should actually do directly. Sometimes we put all the New Labour things – credibility on the deficit, say, or concern about crime – into a box marked ‘eat your electoral greens’. It is often a useful way to persuade people who would otherwise never talk about regulation on business or the need for a credible defence policy. But it can mean New Labour people are talking about tactics while other people are talking about principles, to our long-term cost within the party.
The wider problem with these proxy debates is that they can lead to some odd political strategies. It should not need saying but the risks of underestimating the Conservative party are quite large, while the risks of overestimating them are not. Spending every day of the next three years worrying that we might get crushed in a rerun of the 1992 general election – and avoiding it happening – is better than many of the alternatives.
How does this kind of confusion lead to bad political decision-making? Before the chancellor cut the 50p top rate of tax, many Conservatives said this would be a political act of own-eye-gouging stupidity, confirming all the public’s negative associations with the party. But there were also Tory voices arguing that they should ‘recast the debate’ or ‘remind’ the public that entrepreneurialism was key to the jobs and growth they cared about.
Someone in the Treasury was listening and persuaded themselves that they could pursue the policy that Tory activists and donors dreamt about – and that it would also turn out to be very smart politics. Perhaps they thought that Labour was too weak to benefit from any short-term outcry. They were wrong.
Steve Van Riel was the Labour party’s director of policy and research at the 2010 general election
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