Prepare for the punches
How might the Tories lift themselves from their current doldrums? Hopi Sen previews the coming assault on Labour
The Conservative party is in the grip of a summer of discontent. Backbenchers mutter. Tory commentators say David Cameron’s leadership is at risk. Ben Brogan writes in the Telegraph that ‘defeat looks certain’. Gulp. Yet just last winter, Brogan told his readers that ‘the mood in No 10 is bullish’, the opinion polls regularly showed the Conservatives on about 40 per cent, while Tory backbenchers talked about an early election.
What went wrong? Recession, a disastrous budget, policy failures and a rapid fall in Cameron’s personal ratings. On top of that the Tories now know that they will not get the 20-seat boundary review bonus they were expecting. This has even led to loose talk about a Boris Johnson leadership. If Johnson is the answer, the Tories must be asking themselves some pretty horrible questions.
With a 10-point Labour poll lead and an ugly electoral map, how can the Tories possibly win? In one sense, the answer is obvious: to win the next election the Tories need to assemble an electoral coalition larger than that which they had at the start of the year. If the Tories manage next time to outperform the national swing in seats they gained in 2010 like Sherwood and Weaver Vale (which is entirely possible given the electoral boost first-term incumbents traditionally get), they could get over the line by winning more than 42 per cent and holding Labour at about 38 per cent. Normally that would not be nearly enough for a majority, but a big decline in the Liberal Democrat vote could hand the blue team seats like Sutton and Cheam and Eastbourne, which would counteract losses to Labour.
Research by Michael Ashcroft suggests this is possible. He argues that those who have left the Tories since the 2010 election – ‘the defectors’, as he terms them – and those who did not vote Tory last time, but could be persuaded to – the ‘considerers’ – could deliver a parliamentary majority for the Tories. These two groups are not Tories today, but they believe Cameron and George Osborne are a better team for managing the economy than Labour. They think the Tories are better for jobs and growth and cutting the deficit than Labour. What is more, they think the Tories are prepared to take tough decisions for long-term gain. The Conservatives get good ratings from both groups on issues like immigration, welfare and crime. However, among ‘considerers’ the Tories need to do a lot more work on issues like schools, cutting taxes, and ‘treating people fairly’.
They also give Cameron a strong lead as the best prime minister. The difference is that the ‘defectors’ like the Tories more than Cameron, but the ‘considerers’ like Cameron more than the Tories.
This highlights the big problem the Tory high command faces: their ‘defectors’ are largely frustrated Conservatives who have disappeared to UKIP or apathy, while the ‘considerers’ are more like traditional ‘swing voters’, including many former Liberal Democrats. The ‘considerers’ like the moderating influence the Liberal Democrats have on the government. The ‘defectors’ hate it. Making both groups happy at the same time will pose problems. So how might they do it?
Since their potential coalition is united on the economy, the cornerstone of Tory recovery must be delivering economic growth, but how they do it matters almost as much as when recovery actually comes. Most potential Tory voters are willing to forgive recession now, feeling the blame lies with Labour or Europe. They believe the deficit needs harsh action, and expect hard times to come. However, they do not want to be neglected if they are working hard. The post-2010 defectors are more sceptical about prospects for growth, but are also the most hostile to Labour.
So to impress defectors, the Tories need growth, but to persuade ‘considerers’ they need to show they are on the side of the people former Australian prime minister John Howard called ‘the battlers’. The 50p tax cut was exactly the wrong way to woo this group, so the Tories must reverse the damage done by the budget, and fast.
Expect the Tories to emphasise low interest rates, deregulation, taking people out of tax, and creation of private sector jobs through supporting businesses. As the next election nears, look for proposed tax cuts for low-to-middle-income families, paid for by a combination of welfare cuts and taxes on the very prosperous.
This would provide the ammunition for the second key to Tory recovery – a full-frontal assault on Labour’s economic credibility. If one thing unites potential Tory supporters, it is suspicion of Labour. The Tories must raise the perceived risk of a debt crunch, define Labour’s record negatively, and suggest dire consequences from a high-spending, tax-increasing, deficit-busting Miliband government.
The Tories need to persuade people who do not always like their decisions that if Labour were in power, things would be a lot worse. This means the Conservatives cannot back down on the need to cut the deficit. If they abandon deficit reduction, they undermine their central purpose. When cuts targets are missed, they will just have to be explained as the price of Labour failure and European collapse, and used to underline the risks of more debt.
Tory considerers will be told that they cannot trust Labour on the economy, welfare, spending and crime, while Tory defectors will be told that if they do not vote Tory, they will wake up with Labour. That means the Tories need to define Ed Miliband and Ed Balls as a threat to those ‘battlers’ the Tories are trying to help. But because he has to appear a unifying figure to appeal to the centrist ‘considerers’, Cameron himself will try and stay on the high road, stressing his plans to give ‘hard workers’ a ‘fair chance’, and the importance of taking tough decisions for long-term growth. The Tories need a Norman Tebbit to do the demolition job instead. Using Eric Pickles, Theresa May, or, best of all, Boris Johnson, to attack the Labour leadership would be smart. Cameron cannot be Flashman, so why not let Boris be Dennis the Menace?
If the Tories argue that Labour cannot be trusted with the economy, Labour must show how wrong that is. One of the lessons of François Hollande’s election campaign was that Nicolas Sarkozy’s attacks on the left as a risk to recovery foundered on Hollande’s plans to cut the deficit over the medium term, reduce waste and cut corporation tax and VAT. This pro-enterprise stance meant progressive policies could not be portrayed as a threat to recovery.
Labour needs policies for growth – like an industrial bank, infrastructure and housing investment. Alongside this, Labour needs to show an enthusiasm for enterprise, for cutting waste and an ability to say ‘no’. Having entrepreneurs and business groups backing Labour’s policies would allow sceptical voters to believe that smart deficit reduction and growth can go together. Labour must not turn on its leaders, especially the shadow chancellor, when they show they are tough as well as kind.
Further, Labour should use the next two years to promote Miliband as a practical, detail-oriented leader who has what it takes to put Britain on the right track, in comparison with the slapdash, make-it-up-as-you-go-along Cameron. To put it crudely, when the national operating system has a virus, you appreciate someone who looks like he fixes computers for fun. That puts a premium on policy detail, not overblown rhetoric.
Finally, Labour has to expose any Tory claim of cutting waste, welfare and big government as being on the side of ‘ordinary people’. We need to show that they are doing no such thing. So Labour needs to highlight how the Tories are making life harder by wastefully spending on the ‘costs of Tory failure’, and offer better, costed alternatives.
The Tories are down on points today but, remember, at the start of the year they were polling almost what they need to win. If they get growth by 2014, offer well-chosen bribes and savagely attack Labour, they could turn things around. To stop them, Labour needs to anticipate the blows before they land, and be where the punches are not.
Hopi Sen is a candidate in the members’ section in the Progress strategy board elections 2012. You can find out more about all the candidates at the dedicated Progress strategy board election microsite
Boris Johnson, Conservatives, David Cameron, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Francois Hollande, John Howard, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Nicolas Sarkozy, Norman Tebbit, UKIP