We are now a little over two months from polling day. At this point, comparing the two main parties’ election campaigns is like reading about a Netherlands-San Marino World Cup qualifying football match – so one-sided as to make you feel sorry for the bunch getting walloped. For while the Tories have run an extremely disciplined, well-structured campaign that plays to their strengths, Labour have been unbelievably bad. The pink van; the old guard emerging every once in a while to hint they think things aren’t going so well; the infighting about tuition fees as the precursor to an ultra-lame policy. The Tories, in objective terms, are killing Labour.
And yet in polling terms, which is what really matters, the two parties remain pretty much tied. In fact, Labour were ahead by one point in yesterday’s YouGov poll. When you take together Miliband’s personal bad ratings (and people’s inability to see him as prime minister), the terrible campaign, and the public’s lack of trust in Labour on the economy, you’d think the Conservatives would be at least a consistent five points up at this point.
I think this comes down to a fundamental weakness in the Tory brand. When you have the leader people prefer and you are seen as the only group that could probably run the country effectively, but yet you’re still not ahead in the polls, I don’t see what else it can come down to. Part of it is the usually trotted out stuff about how people see them as the party of the rich. But I think it’s a lot more than that.
What the Tories used to have going for them, what used to help them win election after election during the 20th century, they lost with Thatcher and have never gotten back. It was something really, really simple that the Tories have mislaid and somehow can’t seem to relocate: they were a party that was essentially unideological. The big ideas of how to radically shake up Britain were left to Labour and the smaller parties. The Tories just wanted to keep the machine ticking; that was their essential function as a political party. Yes, once in a while things had to change, adapt with the times, but essentially these alterations (usually minor) were made to keep everything on the same path, not to fundamentally remodel society. And most of the time, the people of Britain chose this lack of ideology as their choice of government. Only when the Tories got too far behind the times, like in 1945 in regards to the establishment of the NHS, or in the ‘60s when they failed to roll with the social changes affecting all of society, did Labour manage to breakthrough.
Post-Thatcher and her radicalism, the Tories have replaced Labour as the party that wants to radically remake society. In many ways, Labour is very conservative these days. Look at the tuition fee announcement: a very minor tinkering of Coalition policy. Meanwhile, a Tory majority wants to take Britain out of the EU, thus altering Britain’s place in the world radically, and taking what amounts to a massive, completely unprecedented gamble with the economy; a huge re-jig on Human Rights, potentially radically altering the citizen’s relationship with the state; so much for a Douglas-Home style, keep calm and drink a cuppa Tory government.
And I think this is ultimately why the Tories aren’t way ahead in the polls. It’s nothing really to do with whether the Conservative Party is too right-wing or hasn’t “modernised enough” – it’s that people don’t really want a Conservative Party to radically change the country. That just isn’t why people vote Tory. In 2015, of all times, when the Conservative’s greatest selling point should be burnishing their solid, unmeddlesome, managerial abilities, they can’t get people to buy it because the party has spent most of the parliament talking about how much it wants to radically change the country. It’s done this because for the most part, this is exactly what most of the Conservative Party wants to do. I believe that until people see the Tories as a safe pair of hands again, they will never get a parliamentary majority. And they just might be about to lose to Ed Miliband, something that should shock them into a solution.
Philip Thomas says
Or it could be 1992 all over again? Remember there is still a month to go before Parliament dissolves so plenty of time for people to change their minds.
On the hard right ideology of the Tories, yes- that is why I left the Tory party back in 2001 and am campaigning against them at this election. Actually I wouldn’t go back as far as the 70s. I think Major in the 90s ran a relatively broad party, which was unfortunately submerged in the tidal wave of Blairism.
Geoffrey Payne says
You keep talking about “Post Thatcher”. In fact it was Thatcher who was radical and the Tories have been radical ever since, going back to 1979. The old image of an unideological Tory party disappeared 35 years ago.
Philip Thomas says
Nick is indeed saying it was Thatcher who was radical “Post Thatcher and her radicalism”. I have to agree, for example the destruction of the hallowed principle that children born in the United Kingdom are British was radical indeed.
Thatcher’s radicalism was masked by Labour radicalism under Michael Foot. It was Blair who buried Labour radicalism once and for all, to which the Conservative response was to revive Thatcherite radicalism in an even more right-wing form (Thatcher never contemplated withdrawal from the ECHR, for example).
paul barker says
We cant know of course but theres a simpler explanation – fixed-term parliaments. Nomally, at this point we would have had to put up with at least a years worth of speculation about snap elections, this time everyone knows the date in advance. Essentially we have given the voters a lie-in, as far as they are concerned its still mid-term. Just when the voters will start to really think about their choice is anyones guess but when the do I expect a very sudden shift in the polls.
Michael Berridge says
In other words the Tories are too far to the right. Some of us have thought that for a long time. Now we are beginning to see the consequences.