October 3, 2005

66% OF THE PEOPLE CAN'T BE RIGHT (via Mike Daley):

The passions and prejudices that motivate these Tory modernisers (Rachel Sylvester, 03/10/2005, Daily Telegraph)

The analysis on which all the candidates appear to be converging is right. The Conservatives have, in recent years, concentrated on wooing white van man but if they want to get back into power again they must appeal to BMW woman, too. If they listen to the Cornerstone MPs, who think that the answer to the Tory problem is to move further to the Right, they will end up needing the group's nickname - a Tombstone. As the Conservative message has become ever more shrill, support for the party among the professional middle classes has slumped from 54 per cent in 1992 to 37 per cent this year. These voters (a growing proportion of the electorate) were embarrassed to vote for a party that ran a negative campaign on immigration. At the same time, the party's traditional support among women is slipping away - as Francis Maude will tell the conference this week, male Tory voters outnumbered female ones at the last election for the first time since women got the vote. The dog whistle simply didn't bring women to heel. If the Tories want to get back into government they must inspire the voters with hope as well as playing on their fears.

This is the message that will be conveyed, in varying degrees, by the leadership candidates this week. The question the MPs and activists who gather in the Winter Gardens must ask themselves is - which of them really means it? William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all started out promising to make their party "broad in appeal and generous in outlook" (or words to that effect) - but each clung to a Right-wing comfort blanket of tax cuts and immigration when the going got tough. In the end it is not what party leaders say that matters but what they do when the pressure is on.

Last week, the favourite, David Davis, insisted that he would not take the party "swerving to the Right" in the months leading up to the next election. Certainly he knows with his head that it would be foolish to do so. Serious people such as David Willetts have been convinced that he would stick to his guns.

But the shadow home secretary is, as he told Andrew Marr on the BBC yesterday, not only a moderniser but also a visceral Right-winger who rejects the idea of moving to the "centre ground". He supports capital punishment, lowering the abortion limit and tax cuts. He is flirting with the idea of replacing the NHS with a social insurance system and introducing education vouchers for schools.

Two-thirds to three-quarters of the British public favors bringing back the death penalty in at least some cases. Like opposition to Europe and anti-immigration, the Right positions are the center.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2005 5:30 PM

Do a poll on the specific topic of capital punishment and you'll find that the majority are for it. Does that make it an election-winning issue? Of course not, it's not an important vote-swinger. It's not in the top fifty vote-swingers.

Politics in Britain has never been less interesting. We have centre-ground (centre-right) politics with barely a fag-paper between the three main parties, never mind the big two.

The Tories don't have to do anything in terms of ideology. A mild spot of rebranding and a young, charismatic leader would probably help, but that's it. They just need to appear optimistic, competent and not corrupt, so that they're a realistic alternative when people get tired of Labour, which inevitably they will.

There's a fundamental truth in British politics that perhaps you overlook:

Oppositions don't win elections, Governments lose them.

Posted by: Brit at October 4, 2005 4:55 AM

Crime is and you can use the death penalty as the wedge.

Ideas win elections. Blair adopted Thatcher's.

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2005 7:44 AM

The Tories were deeply unpopular in 92 - polls were running about the same as they are to this day. Yet they won that election because their policies were conservative, and the only alternative was Old Labour.

Blair's genius was not to come up with alternative ideas to Major, but alternative ideas to Old Labour: to entirely appropriate conservative ideas in an acceptable 'carey-sharey' shiny new package.

He won the 97 election by a landslide on the basis of charisma, optimism and a great public image. Who knew what his ideas were? He was the master of the vague promise, empty of any solid content. All we knew was that it wouldn't be socialist, and it wouldn't be the old, bloated, self-satisfied, in-fighting gentleman's club of the Tory party.

The Tories just need to hang in there long enough for us to get fed up with the self-satisfied, happy-clappy New Labour gang, and then be ready as an acceptable alternative for the floating votes. It's already starting to happen.

(On the capital punishment issue: it's not a practical option anyway. The parties can't run a three-line whip on matters of conscience, of which that is a archetype.)

Posted by: Brit at October 4, 2005 8:58 AM

The Tories dumped Thatchjer and moved Left. Blair dumped Labour and moved Right. Period.

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2005 9:35 AM

American politics is ideological, British politics is not.

You hunt where the ducks are. This stuff is analysed to the nth degree. The Tories won more actual votes in England than Labour at the last GE, yet were still trounced.

A load of seats are safe Tory. A load more are safe Labour. Right wingers in the home counties still vote Tory, socialists in Northern England, Wales and Scotland still vote Labour (but grudgingly). A few are safe Lib Dem.

You win a British election by getting a sufficient percentage swing in the key marginal seats. In each seat you need a tactic to unseat your closest opponent: that tactic will be different depending on which of the two opposing parties your nearest rival belongs to.

The aggregrate of all this means that your best bet is to be appealing to the moderate majority. That means you have to be centre-right, appear competent and have a 'feelgood factor' about you.

Blair forced Labour to realise this, making him their greatest ever leader because he abandoned ideological politics.

He's now lost the feelgood factor, which is why the Tories have to seize it or face more electoral gloom.

Posted by: Brit at October 4, 2005 10:56 AM

All politics is ideological. Labour took the ideas away from the Tories.

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2005 11:28 AM

Yes they did. And when all parties have the same ideas, the battleground is no longer ideological.

British politics was ideological when it was Socialism versus Thatcherism.

Posted by: Brit at October 4, 2005 11:44 AM

The Tories don't have those ideas anymore though. If they did and added anti-Europe, anti-immigrant and pro-death penalty to them they'd win the next election.

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2005 11:50 AM

But OJ, people who are anti-European, anti-immigration and pro-death penalty vote Tory anyway.

Apart from those who voted UKIP, and they were so insignificant they didn't even cause damaging Tory-UKIP splits.

Posted by: Brit at October 4, 2005 12:01 PM


No they don't, that's why the Tory vote is so low. Those are wedge issues that get you over 50% if you use them. American conservatives perfected it. The Tories are too toff to try it.

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2005 12:06 PM

The problem is that the Tories are hedging their bets. At some point they should run on OJ's plan simply to see if it would work. If so, they have a winner. If not, that's one election, and they can go back to doing whatever the next after they hang some poor sap they pin the defeat on.

Often, appearing competent and feel-good is best done when running on an ambitious platform different than business as usual. The politicians who do so come in for a storm of criticism, but if they weather it well it tends to impress voters.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 4, 2005 12:06 PM

oj's prescription won't work because 1) the country isn't very culturally coservative and 2) Labour generally shift rightward on these issues whenever they become electorally relevant.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at October 4, 2005 2:45 PM


The problem with Tories is that unlike the Right in the US they don't have a strong body of leaders, are prone to feuding and personality conflicts and simply don't bother presenting new ideas to the electorate.

At the last US election, Bush consistently pushed the Ownership Society, a genuine program of governmental reform. All the Tories did was say they'd spend as much as Labour and cut taxes at the same time which fooled nobody.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at October 4, 2005 2:50 PM


Neither was America in the 70s.

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2005 5:05 PM

It's just not remotely realistic to run on specific, controversial things like capital punishment.

The party would have a pointlessly self-destructive in-fight over it.

To win the next election, the Tories have to win back the traditional Tory voters that they lost to Labour. It's as simple as that, and those voters aren't to be found on the far Right.

Posted by: Brit at October 5, 2005 7:06 AM


Yes, that's the point--the Tory Party needs a destructive infight and has for decades.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2005 7:47 AM

Well, that is a possibility - particularly if they could sort themselves out on Europe, but at what cost in terms of defecting MPs? The general feeling in the party is that they've spent too much time in-fighting - with Blair now about to face his fifth opposing leader, is it? - and not enough on fighting Labour.

On the ideas front, Americans tend to make the mistake of thinking that Britain is just a mini-version of the States (understandable, but often naive to the point of absurdity).

It's not. The whole political playing field is different. Not just in terms of ideology and what it means to be 'conservative', but even more importantly in terms of how a political party operates on a daily basis. There are some things you can put in a manifesto and enforce on a three-line whip once in power, and some you can't.

Essentially, you guys tend to think that another Dubya could come over here and win an election leading a hard-right Tory party. Which, I promise you, he couldn't.

That's why you get these commentors here making crazy suggestions for the Tory party, like legalising guns, introducing the electric chair and having a written constitution. What else, more money for Sunday schools? As if a whole bunch of populist American concerns are just going to snugly fit the British template.

The equivalent would be if I were to recommend that the next Democratic candidate could beat the Republican by promising greater investment in grassroots cricket and bringing back red telephone boxes.

Posted by: Brit at October 5, 2005 8:27 AM

Of course Bill Clinton won by advocating exactly the same policies as Thatcher, Blair, Howard, and George W. Bush and the next Democrat to win here will sound like Tony Blair.

The Tories are still putting off the crack-up they needed to have when they dumped Ms Thatcher. A conservative party can not be both pro-Europe and coherent.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2005 9:03 AM

But what do you mean by pro- or anti-Europe? What does anybody mean?

There's the rub.

In general, we want the advantages of the EU but don't want to give any power to people we can't vote out. We think the whole set-up is rotten and we want out of it, but we want to be able to change it which means we have to be in it.

An EU without France and Germany would probably be very popular...

Posted by: Brit at October 5, 2005 9:37 AM

Clarke is a vocal advocate of joining the one that has France and Germany. Thatcher was dumped for opposing it. Blair killed it.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2005 10:14 AM
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