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					The Conservatives: Can they win the next election?
'Even during the most difficult months of this government's life, the Conservatives have not managed to establish any meaningful lead in the opinion polls.' Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, 1st August 2004. 'The Conservative Party has no need of focus groups to tell it what middle England is thinking. It merely needs to know what its members and their families are thinking.' David Willets, 1997. Rawnsley's mordant comment contrasts with that of one of the party's historians, Anthony Seldon, who, in 1995 saw no reason to doubt the Tory's continuing dominance in the new century about to dawn. In his 800 page Conservative Century, he wrote: 'its very pragmatism and adaptability will allow it to overcome the severe internal and support problems it faces in the 1990s, and will in all probability ensure that the cycles of Conservative dominance will be repeated well into the 21st century.' It was indeed true that the party had dominated the last century. After the first world war, the nation occasionally allowed Labour a go at running the country- in 1924 and 1931- and then for the historic post-war Attlee government followed by Wilson's more tentative governments in 1964 and 1966. But the seeds of Labour decay were already well in place and a decade of union inspired strife and economic decline gave the Conservatives the rest of the century... until the arrival of Mr Blair. It seemed- and still seems- the Tories have no answer to this class turncoat, this public school, Oxbridge educated, lawyer son of a once aspirant Conservative MP. Leadership Blues 1. Major had the near impossible task of following in the footsteps of the party's greatest ever peacetime leader and with a small majority-despite a healthy 42% share of the vote in 1992- at a time of deep dissent over the EU. His leadership was also unsteady as he demonstrated over the ill-advised 'back to basics' initiative and the ensuing storm of sleaze stories. The fact that he had himself carried out an affair for several years in the late 1980s suggests further evidence of suspect judgement. He was unable to impress discipline upon a party which seemed determined to fall apart or 'implode'. Arguably the exit from the ERM- a Labour backed policy after all- was unfortunate but it condemned the party to years of poll ratings which barely reflected its core one third support of voters. 2. Hague, elected in 1997, flirted with being Howard's deputy but ended up being elected himself. He had the advantage of youth at only 36 years but, after appearing to go for the centre ground steered rightwards with his 'Comonsense Revolution' and the losing die was cast; even more so when an antiEU message delivered victory in the 1999 Euro-elections and falsely reinforced such an approach. Widely and unfairly lampooned for being inexperienced and naive, he rattled Blair in the Commons but failed to raise Conservative poll ratings above that core vote level and the 2001 election result was another Blairite landslide albeit on a turnout of only 59.2%. Once defeated Hague resigned and became immediately respected and admired by the same media which had derided him when aspiring to be Prime Minister. 3. Iain Duncan Smith: was the answer the party membership came up with to the question posed by Young William's departure. Ironically he was the beneficiary of a Hague reform: in an effort to make his party more democratic he had reformed the procedures for electing new leaders, giving the party membership the right to vote for the two candidates who came top of the parliamentary party’s leadership polls. 'IDS' as the ex guards officer was called, was clearly not the choice of more than a third of Tory MPs but in the run-off with the experienced, able and nationally popular Kenneth Clarkea Europhile former Chancellor- the Eurosceptic Thatcherite was hugely preferred. The result was that the party did manage to advance beyond its core vote but, despite Blair's travails, only by a couple of points by the autumn of 2003 when the party conference met in a mood of vindictive intent towards its leader. IDS made a heavily choreographed speech which was first praised then ridiculed by the press. A few weeks later Michael Spicer, the Tory MPs chairman had received the requisite number of letters to trigger a leadership election. But, aware of how damaging such drawn out struggles can be, the potential competitors stood aside to allow the experienced, respected, though never widely liked former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to become leader unopposed in December 2003.

4. Howard at first did well against Blair at the Despatch Box without ever besting him. Though he was occasionally bested himself, Howard has always been a credible potential Prime Minister and a heavyweight politician so gave the party back some sense of pride and direction. His Shadow Team recognised new talent and succeeded in keeping older ones on board. Feuding ceased, policy statements flowed and all seemed much better except for one detail: the polls still flat-lined in the low thirties. In the summer of 2004 the Conservatives failed to exploit the Leicester and Birmingham byelections in which the Liberal Democrats received huge swings from Labour. Finally, in the September Hartlepool by-election, the party trailed fourth behind the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Commentators on both sides of the political divide seemed to agree that the Conservatives could never win the election anticipated for May 2005. But can they? The arguments for and against are along the following lines. Arguments suggesting the Conservatives can win the next election i) Blair's unpopularity: this has been measured on many occasions and it is clear his Iraq adventure, against the majority wish of the nation, especially his own party, and the revelations of his massaging of the evidence which justified the war plus the eventual revelation that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, have depth-charged his believability. A Telegraph poll on 27th August revealed that while 56% thought Labour honest in 2001, only 28% did so now; and while 30% thought them 'not honest' in 2001, 63% did so now. Moreover 57% disapproved of the government's record-up 17% on 2001 and from 56% who preferred Labour to handle economic problems in 2001 the figure three years later was down to 34%. ii) Howard has performed creditably (it needs to be restated) against Blair and won wide-ranging respect for his professionalism. iii) New stars are discernible in the Conservative pantheon, for example George Osborne (MP Tatton) and David Cameron (MP Witney), Shadow Chief secretary and Policy Coordinator respectively. iv) While Iraq war was supported by the Tories, they are not as closely connected to it as Blair and there is some room for attack on the issue come the election. Moreover, if events continue to decline disastrously in Iraq this can offer some help to the Conservatives; though, clearly, not as much as it will help the Lib Dems. v) Tactical Voting in decline: with the break up of the anti-Tory coalition voters will be less likely to vote tactically to keep Conservatives out. Assuming Conservatives polled votes as indicated by polls in October 2004, and that no tactical voting occurred they would gain 31 seats while Labour would be down by 51. As Nick Cohen wrote in the Observer 10th October: 'In St Albans and Welwyn and many tight seats like them, the Tories don't need to increase their vote to win. They just need Lib Dems, Greens and the rest to stop voting Labour.' Moreover, he argued, if Lib Dems can take Labour seats in by-elections why can't seats with large student and muslim populations fall to them in general elections? vi) Tory support underestimated by polls: in 1992 polls were some 7 per cent out; in 1997 ran 3.5% behind the eventual vote and in 2001 they underestimated by over 6.5%. Polling companies have not solved what seems to be an endemic methodological problem in this respect. vii) Tories have angry minorities on their side: foxhunters and eurosceptics who hate Blair with a pathological passion: they will campaign determinedly against Blair and this will make a difference in a low poll. vii) Intellectual liberal left has deserted Blair; witness the recent Cockerell programme where old supporters lined up to express their disillusionment and the evidence is seen every day as former friends cry betrayal. The Hutton and Butler reports on the intelligence underlying the decision to go to war in Iraq were breaking points for many.

viii) Press are drifting back to Conservatives. Howard has been wooed by Murdoch and Sun is not only critical of Blair but welcomed Howard's conference speech in its editorial. The Press in Britain has always been more prone to support right anyway. ix) Europe, Immigration and taxes: The EU Constitution referendum: will be an issue Conservatives can exploit as the public seems against the issue and generally is more euro-sceptic than ever; witness the rise of UKIP. However an Economist/Yougov poll 2nd October suggested 33% of voters would be more likely to vote Conservative if the party took a firmer line on the EU. b) Immigration: The same poll showed 40% of voters would be more likely to vote for the party if it took a firmer line on immigration c) Taxes: about 20% said they would be more likely to vote Conservative if they promised to lower taxes. x) Labour has splits in the party: over 200 have rebelled since 1997 and there is a massive divide between supporters of Brown and those of Blair. xi) Time: a week is a long time in politics said Harold Wilson and it is now over seven years since Blair became PM enough for many to forget the Conservative years and to hope the alternative on offer might be better than what we currently have. Reasons to believe Conservatives cannot win the election i) UKIP: the new party has shown it can damage the Tories and Robert Kilroy -Silk has said he wants to 'kill' the Conservative party. It was rumoured John Redwood was brought back into the Shadow Cabinet in an attempt to neutralize the UKIP threat though most commentators, even in the Sunday Telegraph, were doubtful this would be an effective ploy. More important is whether the party should veer back towards euro-scepticism to pre-empt UKIP or aim at the middle ground of taxes, public services etc to challenge for the mainstream. Most of the columnists felt the latter course was the only one as elections are won in the centre ground and not on the extremes as Hague discovered to his cost in 2001. To Tory delight Paul Sykes, the Yorkshire millionaire withdrew support from UKIP after K.Silk's comment. ii) Middle Ground dominated by Blair: on 2nd October the Economist published a YouGov poll which asked respondents to place themselves on a left-right spectrum; extreme left minus 100- extreme right plus 100 (see diagram at end of this note). Most people situated themselves in the middle and the average voter ended up located at 'minus 2'. Then voters asked to place politicians on the spectrum and we see Blair 4 points right of centre. Kennedy and Lib Dems are 15 points to the left; Brown is 22 to left and Labour MPs even more so. Clarke was plus 24 but Howard plus Tory Mps was way out to right on plus 52. Blair, for all his faults is still the guy most in touch with most voters- a brilliant sense of political positioning maybe? Brown is seen as definitely to the left- he would face difficulty in attracting middle England votes. Howard however way out there 54 points from the average and just as extreme as his Mps, faces a dire struggle to convince moderate voters he is their man and to win the centre ground. iii) Blair expert at seizing middle ground: on asylum, crime and welfare state reform Blair has shown he can 'out Tory' the Tories and moves in with his own spoiling initiatives. Cutting civil service numbers was a good example: Tories suggested it in February 2004 while Blair-Brown announce cuts of 80,000 in their economic statement in the summer: their thunder was well and truly stolen. Yet if Tories want to disengage from euro-scepticism to appear less extreme and monomaniac, they will let in UKIP flood into the vacated space. They are in an attitude pincer on a number of issues; on race also they are threatened by the BNP if they tack too far into the centre. iv) Howard's initiatives backfire: his claim that one Saturday night in Brixton there were no police on the streets was proved wrong, just as the case of a constituent cited in a Commons debate turned out to be false. This displays poor opposition tactics. v) While Blair not trusted, Howard not either to almost similar degree; the August Telegraph poll showed 57% of those asked thought a future Conservative government would not be 'honest and trustworthy.'

vi) Economic and Social Policy: the economy has witnessed steady growth since mid nineties. Brown has managed the economy with great success and inflation and unemployment are low. This is bound to work to Labour's advantage. Social Policy has been redistributive and poorer voters will probably reward Labour with their continued support. vii) Public services: after the years of decline under the Conservatives huge amounts of cash have been ploughed back into health and education. Poll evidence seems to suggest voters are at last recognising improvements and this must improve Labour's chances of winning a third term. viii) Lib Dems challenge: some polls have shown them equal or in front of the Conservatives and there is no doubt they are in Kennedy's sights as they trounce them in by elections. ix) Notting Hill Set: maybe this is mostly media hype but a group has been discerned living in Notting Hill who see themselves as the young Turks surrounding Howard including Ed Vaizey, Rachel Whetstone, David Cameron, Edward Heathcote-Amory, Michael Gove and George Osborne. Not important at present but could be beginnings of a 'Howard's court' or a faction rather like that surrounding Portillo as of old. Simon Heffer attacked them as 'a clique of out-of touch, predominantly young and metropolitan advisers.' (Daily Mail 4/10/04) x) Voting System biased against Conservatives: it used to be the case that the electoral system was biased against Labour but in recent decades this has been reversed by: the piling up of 'wasted' votes in safe Conservative seats; the tendency for Labour to win seats with low votes in inner city constituencies; and labour's successful lobbying of the Boundary Commission during its last review of boundaries. Consequently, even if both big parties received the same vote Labour would enjoy a majority of over 70 seats. Conclusion So the Conservatives are set to do better than in 2001 and will probably avoid a landslide next time, but the best they can hope for probably is to remove Labour's overall majority. The press had few doubts on the party's dire state in early October: 'The party is dying', Daily Mirror (4/10/04); 'The Tories (are) desperately sick and tired', Trevor Kavanagh, Sun, (4/10/04); 'Only an insane optimist would predict a Tory victory' Financial Times (4/10/04); 'Voters see a party infirm of purpose, that doesn't believe in itself, and can hardly therefore expect anyone else to do so.' David Mellor, Evening Standard (4/10/04). Despite a successful conference in early October, the polls delivered a savage verdict on 10th October. The Conservatives came out at only 30%- that core vote yet again; Lib Dems were dangerously placed a few points behind on 23% and Labour were back up, nine points clear at 39%. This was three points down for the Conservatives on their 2001 performance and suggested Labour would win another landslide of 154 seats; the Tories meanwhile would end up nine down at 158. The Lib Dems would win 61 on the same calculations. Moreover the poll showed that while 29% trusted Howard more than Blair, 40% trusted Blair more than Howard.

Bill Jones 12/10/04

Articles 'It's tough being a Tory', Economist, 2nd October, 2004 'The Conservatives and the coming election' Economist 9 th October 2004-10-12 'How to Save Labour' Nick Cohen, Observer, 10th October 2004. 'Didn't they do well?' Hennessey and Kite, Sunday Telegraph, 10th October, 2004 'The party is on its knees', Guardian, 5th October, 2004 'Is there anywhere for the Tories to Turn? A Rawnsley, Observer, 1 August 2004


				
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