Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The road ahead for the Conservatives

A Road Ahead. Yesterday
One swallow does not make a summer, still less a relationship, any more than one poll makes a party. The Guardian poll putting the Conservatives on 40% compared to 31% for the Labour party - a figure that improves if the leaders are stated to be Gordon Brown and David Cameron - is good news for the Conservative Party. It's not much more than that.
In fact, conventional wisdom holds that the Tories should be doing considerably better than they are. To back this up, people point to the stratospheric poll leads enjoyed by New Labour in the dog days of the mid 90s. 'See?' goes the argument, 'Cameron isn't doing so very well after all.' If the argure is Simon Heffer, he will proceed to argue that if only Cameron pledged to reduce taxes immediately, bring back grammar schools and tighten restrictions on immigration, the Tories would be polling in the upper 40s and God would be in his heaven and all right with the world. If the arguer is a Labour supporter, he will proceed to say that, y'know, if this is the best the Tories can do, they'll get pummelled at the election - remember the big poll leads Kinnock had? I think this analysis is unduly gloomy, and I think so for several reasons.
1. The Tories need to be polling in excess of 40% because of their unfavourable electoral position. This is true, up to a point, as Anthony Wells consistently points out. However, a significant part of the reason for this has been the Lib/Lab tacit 'GROT' understanding. I predict that a significant degree of this will unwind - by-election results show a collapse in the Labour vote as the most significant factor. There are an awful lot of marginals, an awful lot of which are kept Labour by the traditional Lib Dem dislike of the Tories - if that weakens, as it appears to be doing, we might see a lot of these switch without a significant increase in the Tory vote.
2. The Tories need to be polling in excess of 40% because that's what populatr opposition parties do in the middle of Parliaments. Gah. There is no point - none - in looking at polling data from the 80s and 90s in order to draw conclusions about where the Tories should be now. The methods were different (and worse) and the data is so flawed that it it literally worthless. Look instead at data from the last five years, and look at progress within the same pollsters: ie YouGov three years ago against YouGov now. That's rather more encouraging.
3. There will be a 'Brown bounce'. There would scarcely be a Brown bounce if you dropped him off the top of the Palace of Westminster. New leadership bounce generally happens when the new leader is an exciting new face (OK, or John Major) who has come through an election that made the General public feel engaged. Hence Callaghan and Major got a bounce, Douglas-Home basically didn't. If Brown faces a serious election, then there might be the semblance of a bounce, otherwise it's 'Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.'
So - where to go from here? The first point to make is, basically, hurrah! This is working! The enthusiasm for New Labour has been diminishing for years - it has been Cameron's achievement to enable the Conservatives to benefit. The second point is that Cameron is probably the Conservative's biggest asset - an effort should be made to associate his image closely with that of the party. The third point is that Gordon Brown has the makings of being truly electorally toxic - efforts should be made to identify the 'Clunking Fist' inextricably with the pensions debacle, the rising burden of taxation, and the image of stifling government intervention - not too difficult as all are based on reality.
UKIP are not a significant threat to the Tories - for all the genuine efforts of people like Trixy and the DK the chances of UKIP developing as a major force in right-wing/libertarian politics are slight. far more worrying is the risk of simple disengagement from the Conservative right. Cameron may gamble that he will pick up more votes from the centre than he will lose from the right, but the balance needs to be finely judged. Similarly the BNP are so toxic that they simply have to be treated with care. It is true that they are picking up Tory votes in local elections, but this will fade away in a general election - it will only be in constituencies where the Tories are already no-hopers that this will be a major factor.
For the Tories to focus on elaborately detailed policies will risk them becoming little more than a Labour think-tank. However, the image of Cameron as a policy-free zone is worryingly sticky. If the Tories can stick down a few well-publicised policy markers in areas the Labour Party cannot touch - direct democracy say, or increased independence for schools - this ought to provide an answer to the 'but what policies do you have?' question.

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