This week’s Conservative party conference gave me the impression of a party that has collectively written off the prospect of winning the next general election outright and is instead focused on other strategic objectives.
Up until recently David Cameron seemed to have a coherent strategy for trying to return the Tories to the 40 per cent plus score that won them the four elections from 1979 to 1992.
This was essentially a mirror-image of Tony Blair’s successful strategy – the detoxification of the Tories by dumping the least popular aspects of their last period in government and embracing popular aspects of Labour’s agenda. This manoeuvre has been successfully carried out by one of the Tories’ sister parties, Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Moderates, in Sweden.
In phase one of detoxification in opposition, Cameron stressed his Notting Hill social liberalism, hugged huskies, talked about ‘going green by voting blue’, and pledged to defend spending on the NHS and international development. Phase two appeared to be the creation of the coalition – the rose garden love-in with Nick Clegg made it look like Cameron was actually happier working with Lib Dems than his own hardliners, and provided the perfect excuse for negotiating away rightwing policies and shadow ministers.
But the central plank of the coalition’s strategy – an aggressive approach to deficit reduction – has proved to be the economic disaster that Labour warned it would be, stifling growth. This has meant that deep-set memories among older voters of previous recessions under the Tories have a new resonance. Because austerity has been overdone, the Tories look less likely to be able to engineer a pre-election boom as they have usually done in the past.
The bizarre decision to embark on an expensive and unpopular, and wholly unnecessary, reorganisation of the NHS, has also repoliticised a policy area which is normally a strong card for Labour, but that Cameron had successfully neutralised in the run-up to 2010.
Meanwhile the Tories have lost their two ‘get out of jail free’ cards. The boundary review looks dead. And they made the fatal mistake until his speech last week, also made by some Labour politicians, of underestimating Ed Miliband and assuming he would be an anchor on Labour’s chances. The extent to which the ‘One Nation’ concept has deeply discombobulated the Tories should not be underestimated.
The key speeches this week were mainly notable for being aimed at the party faithful and not the wider electorate. The coalition and the Lib Dems were never mentioned.
If voters were watching they would have seen an unremitting stream of harshness. Nothing seemed to be challenging the party or appealing outside the Daily Mail comfort zone: from Jeremy Hunt’s remarks about abortion onwards, through welfare, immigration, the right to shoot burglars, Europe, economic austerity. Cameron and Michael Gove’s attempts to position themselves in 2010 as the true ‘heirs to Blair’ have been replaced by George Osborne’s announcement that Blair achieved nothing.
Cameron’s own speech, while cogent and coherent, was hardly FDR’s ‘happy days are here again’ or ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. In fact, it was more a counsel of national economic despair, with the faint hope that if we give up most of the threadbare workplace rights and social welfare system that survived 18 years of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and throw ourselves into a new entrepreneurial economy fuelled by blood, sweat, toil and tears, we might have a slim chance of avoiding penury or becoming an economic colony of China or Brazil.
The idea that we might compete with the emerging economies not through a race to the bottom on terms and conditions, nor through a fantasy that downsizing the state will create a vacuum that will be naturally filled by the private sector, but through investing in the skills of our workforce, investing in new industries and technologies, supporting R&D, and creating the support and infrastructure needed to attract inward investment, seems to have passed Cameron by. Does he never stop and consider why Germany or Sweden don’t have the kind of narrative of national decline that we do?
This bizarrely harsh positioning has a number of possible explanations:
1) The Tory ministers actually just believe this nonsense and are ‘living the Tory dream’ implementing it. They’d rather lose than compromise with the electorate.
2) Cameron has to appease his own restless rightwing backbenchers. He has calculated he would prefer to buy a guaranteed further two and a half years as PM rather than gamble by adopting election-winning policies that might precipitate a party coup that sees him lose office.
3) The target audience is the 9-10 per cent of the electorate currently telling pollsters they will vote UKIP, hence the conference sounded like it was script-written by Nigel Farage. The Tories face an electoral war on two flanks, and perhaps they have calculated UKIP are the softer target. But this assumes that UKIP voters can be bought off on saloon-bar populist rhetoric on issues other than Europe, because you can satisfy them on the EU without Britain leaving it, which isn’t going to happen. And for every one per cent chiselled back from UKIP, what might be lost on the Tories’ left flank? I think we underestimate the impact UKIP is having on Tory grassroots morale as we are not close enough to see the impact of a drip-drip of activist defections, or to sense the guilt-complex of Tories who see in UKIP the party they wish to be.
4) Having calculated he can’t win outright, Cameron is going for a core-vote mobilisation strategy to secure the most seats in another hung parliament. But when the Tories tried a core-vote strategy in 2001 and 2005 with dog-whistle policies on immigration and Europe they only scored 31-32 per cent. They managed to increase this in 2010 to 36 per cent only by reaching out to the centre. But the rhetoric now sounds like Michael Howard in 2005, not Cameron in his earlier cuddlier incarnation.
5) This is cleverly targeted stuff by Lynton Crosby aimed at the prejudices of swing voters in marginal seats. The give-away for Crosby’s influence is the sudden use of the phrase ‘strivers’ – an English version of the Australian phrase ‘battlers’, used to describe swing suburban voters who work hard to overcome adversity.
It’s number five that might make the most sense and presents the greatest threat to Labour. As Blair knew, the voters who decide the outcome of general elections are culturally conservative and deeply concerned about issues where the current Tory rhetoric might resonate, such as immigration, welfare, Europe and crime.
But these voters are also influenced by a whole set of other issues where their instincts are nearer to Labour’s. They use public services that as we get deeper into the cuts period are going to look increasingly ropey.
And more importantly they go Tory when they trust the Tory handling of the economy and distrust Labour’s.
On this critical issue it’s all pain and no gain from Cameron at the moment. The austerity drive hasn’t worked but isn’t being revised. He is not offering these people any comfort, or hope, or easing of their economic plight. Middle England voters may not be unemployed but their kids may be, and they themselves may not have had a pay increase for five years, or have had their hours cut, whil confronting rising prices. They also worry that their children will never get on the housing ladder. There was nothing presented this week that will seriously address those issues.
Thatcher didn’t just offer Middle England a painful economic readjustment, she offered them a quick buck through privatised share offers, and the chance to buy their own home through right to buy if they were council tenants. Once the initial recession was over there was the Lawson boom and the loadsamoney culture to win the 1987 election.
Cameron actually comes across as less flexible and less shrewd in putting together a 40 per cent plus electoral coalition than Thatcher was.
Labour’s opportunity is that he is failing to offer a change of direction that will address the toughness of everyday life not just for the poorest but for the ‘squeezed middle’ facing a pay freeze and rising prices; and failing to come up with a vision of investment in skills, technology and industry that might offer some hope and help to the next generation about the UK’s economic future, as opposed to his exhortation to work until you drop.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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