It is clear, even to the casual observer, that the Conservatives are in a bit of a tangle. You could say the same about the other main political parties. But the Conservatives appear to be going through a particularly public convulsion at the moment.
They seem to have misplaced 20% of their opinion poll support over the course of 2012. Many of those potential voters appear to have transferred allegiance to UKIP. On the basis of opinion polling, some commentators are already declaring UKIP the third party of British politics, overtaking the Liberal Democrats.
Paul Goodman posted a piece at the Telegraph on the weekend arguing that the rise of UKIP was one of four factors which pointed to the conclusion that the 2015 General Election is already lost. The piece generated a rapid response among the right wing commentariat. Both Tim Montgomerie and Iain Dale argued that while a Labour victory in 2015 looks likely, the result isn’t inevitable. There are steps that David Cameron can take over the next year that would revive the Conservative party’s fortunes. Grant Shapps waded in on New Year’s Eve to castigate anyone declaring that the election is already lost. This is just, in his view, being defeatist.
The question, of course, is what Cameron should do to turn things around. Inevitably, views differ. About the only point commentators seem to be closely aligned upon is that Cameron needs to make his long-promised landmark speech on Europe, with some serious substance, some time very soon.
For much of last year the Conservatives’ right wing backbenchers were making a nuisance of themselves both in the House and in the media. The clamour is for isolationism and turbocharged neoliberalism. A decisive swing to the right is claimed to be the way to see off the UKIP threat and encourage wavering right wing voters back into the fold.
Over the New Year it was the turn of the centre-right moderates and the modernisers to make an alternative case. This is a case we hear being made much less frequently.
Matthew d’Ancona’s recent piece in the Telegraph was fascinating. It suggests the modernisation and detoxification of the Conservative party was a long-term process, well underway in the mid-2000s, which was derailed by the financial crisis. The party had been moving towards demonstrating that it is possible to have conservative sensibilities and support conservative policies while at the same time looking beyond self- and class-interest to a more inclusive and liberal form of government. Yet, the way the Government has gone about much of its business since May 2010 has undone all that hard work.
D’Ancona argued that the process of modernisation needs to be reinvigorated. The ideas associated with “compassionate Conservativism” need to be recovered. The suggestion is that many people are receptive to much of the substance of the Conservative message, even though they are repulsed by the toxic brand that is the Tory party. A swing to the right is precisely the wrong strategy. The Conservative party needs to reach out to the mainstream and the centre ground.
This is an interesting argument because, while it is partly about being more socially liberal, it is primarily an argument about ethos. It isn’t so much saying that the Conservatives would be pursuing a different economic policy agenda or programme of welfare reform, but that they would be doing so out of genuine concern for the health of the economy and the wellbeing of citizens, rather than with lashings of stigmatising rhetoric and a sulphurous smirk.
The Labour blogger Hopi Sen has questioned whether, in practice, motivations matter in this way. He sees Conservative modernisation not as a stalled project but as a completed project which was fundamentally inadequate in the circumstances. Actions are more important than motives. And if the action is taking money away from people through higher taxes and reduced welfare payments then it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it with relish or with regret – people aren’t going to like it. Or you.
If that were the case then that’s a problem for Labour also. In the current circumstances the substance of their policy agenda wouldn’t be so very different.
I’m not sure that Sen’s position is the case in principle. But it might be the case in practice. I suspect the Government could have pursued many of its current reforms accompanied by a very different rhetoric, without the need to denigrate and deride, and they may not have been received so negatively. That case could have been made. And people may have got behind it. But it is a more subtle case. It is a case that requires engaging voters with the issues. It requires policy nuance, not policy by soundbite. And it would require a Government with the sort of clear vision that seems to elude this one.
And the Government could have avoided pursuing policies – such as those associated with labour market deregulation – for which there is no strong evidence of effectiveness. Such policies suggest little more than vindictiveness: a desire to foster greater insecurity in the workforce. These are policies that reassert the Tories as a party of the propertied classes, governing in the interests of the rich.
If the Conservatives are going to get back in the game then the moderates have got to prevail. Initiatives such as the move to re-engage working class households look potentially interesting. If the popular conception of the Conservatives is now of a party run by and for posh people – and it is, even allowing for the existence of Eric Pickles – then re-engaging working class households is going to require a fundamental rethink.
UKIP may be riding relatively high in the opinion polls but the party is a bit monomaniacal. Beyond its rejection of the institutions of Europe and its xenophobia it isn’t clear to most people what the party stands for. The party is a bit of a one trick pony. And it’s only got the one pony anyone has ever heard of.
My feeling is that the UKIP threat is being overstated. Presumably that serves the purposes of those who want to drive the Conservatives to the right. If you look at voting patterns rather than opinion polling then UKIP fall a long way short of challenging the Liberal Democrats. However, the implications of these data can equally be contested.
The Tories torpedoed the move to change the voting system away from first past the post. That upset the Liberal Democrats mightily, started the unravelling of the Coalition, and was terrible for the development of democracy in Britain. But it serves the Conservatives’ purpose here. If they hadn’t done so then there might be reason to be concerned about the sort of numbers that UKIP are currently polling. Any surge in UKIP popularity will suffer in the same way as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, among others have suffered in the past. Given FPTP and tactical voting, I would be surprised if UKIP secured a single seat in 2015, or whenever the election occurs.
Future Conservative success is going to depend less on dealing with the UKIP threat and more on whether David Cameron – or his successor – is able to take on his own unruly right-wing backbenchers. The Tea Party Tories could do for the Conservatives what the Tea Party has done for the Republicans. The GOP has turned into a bit of a farce as a result of its infiltration by a Tea Party tendency that pushes it to extreme positions that have strictly limited appeal. Following Romney’s failure the party has now realised that there are not enough old white people in the southern and rural parts of the US to get the party elected, and that is the demographic to which their current policy platform primarily appeals. If the Conservatives swing right then they are in danger of making the same mistake. Big in Bournemouth, but making no impression anywhere else.
Images: the Conservative Party via Flickr under Creative Commons