Friday, March 06, 2009

Has O'Sullivan picked up the right lessons from Cameron?

Has there been a Cameroonian revolution in British conservatism?  And if so, should it be used as a model by the American Republicans?  These two questions have caused a bit of a stir, starting with an article for the National Review written by John O’Sullivan.

This article was based really on two premises: that Tory problems since 1997 have been exaggerated; and that their recovery has been the result of their return to good old-fashioned Conservatism and not any mythical ‘rebranding’ by David Cameron.  Danny Finkelstein disagrees, as does Alex Massie, and there has been an ongoing debate between the parties which makes for interesting, if not always unduly enlightening reading here, here and here.

O’Sullivan’s first premise goes as follows:

In fact the bedrock Tory vote stood up pretty well. The Tories hovered around 32 percent in the elections of 1997, 2001, and 2005 — which may sound terrible but is normal for the losing party in a two-and-a-half party system like Britain’s. Labour won the last election with only 36 percent of the popular vote — just three points ahead of the Tories. When Labour had its own losing streak in the 1980s, its share of the vote fell to 27 percent. So a Tory recovery when Blair was gone and Major finally forgotten was always a likely outcome.

Well, I’m not convinced that “The Tories: slightly better than Michael Foot” is as comfortable a position as O’Sullivan believes.  A vote share of 32% – itself hyper-concentrated in ‘traditional’ Tory areas – was a disaster for the Tories.  That this share barely increased over two elections and nearly ten years was also disastrous.  Claiming now that recovery was ‘always a likely outcome’ is to be wise after the event – certainly in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 election it was easy to find voices claiming that the Conservative Party was now finished forever as a political force.  Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote a book about it

The narrative is solipsistic. It assumes that politics revolves around the Tory party. From 1997 to 2005, however, Britain was having a passionate love affair with Tony Blair. No one was interested in the Tories or whatever policies they managed to send forth from their coven. Only when the voters became disillusioned with Blair did the Tories get their chance. Fortunately for Cameron, that was where he came in.

Up to a point Lord Copper.  Tony Blair’s vote (in terms of raw numbers) dropped dramatically between 1997 and 2001, and by 2005 it was pathetic.  And yet the Tories didn’t benefit from it.  The electorate fell out of love with Labour pretty early.  But the Tories did nothing to woo them.

O’Sullivan’s insistence that the Tory’s electoral woes during this period were the result of their half-hearted ‘modernising’ attempts is still less persuasive.  Look back to Tory election campaigns and what sticks out?  Britain becoming a foreign land; 24 hours to save the pound; are you thinking what we’re thinking?  They were exclusively negative and often downright unpleasant.  I’m about as Tory a chap as you’re going to meet and I remember squirming at the immigration posters – they seemed to be the poster equivalent of saying “Look, I’m no racist, but…”  And the rest of the country seemed to agree.  There are few better ways of illustrating this point than by that finding that the public were less likely to agree with a policy if it were identified as a Tory one.

When Cameron was elected leader of the Tory Party it’s worth pointing out that the top priority was not policy – as had been established even good Tory policies were unpopular because they were Tory policies – it was the Party’s image.  To complain that Cameron was image-obsessed is to miss the point.  The image was the main problem.  What he was doing – for the first year at least – was earning the Tories the right to be heard.

O’Sullivan then looks at polling throughout Cameron’s leadership, and divides it into four stages – the early stages before the Blair departure; the first Brown bounce; the long Tory resurgence; and the second Brown bounce.

About the first stage he says This period is regarded as a success by the modernizers and their media claque because it allegedly “detoxified the brand.” In fact, the Tories were still stuck in the mid-30s in the opinion polls in June 2007, lagging behind an increasingly unpopular Labour government.

This does not exactly square with the facts.  Look at this graph from Anthony Wells.  Immediately after Cameron’s election as leader, the Tories went from their bedrock 32-34% support to 37% - ahead of Labour on 35%.  By and large the Tories maintained this lead – and this polling position of about 37-38% until the departure of Tony Blair.

The rest of the opinion poll review that O’Sullivan offers again seems to miss the point – every reversal is the result of Tory wetness; every recovery the result of bold moves to the right.   And where are we now?

After all the repositioning, detoxification, and photo ops, Tory poll ratings have now slipped back into the 40–44 percent range. If that were translated into votes, it would produce a Tory majority of about 70 seats in the next election. Opposition parties typically win fewer votes in general elections than in midterm polls or special elections. To win the next election on Tory merits, Cameron needs the steady high-40s share in polls he enjoyed last year. And recent polls show small gains at Labour’s expense, not for the Tories but for third, fourth, and even fifth parties.

And this, frankly, is nonsense.  O’Sullivan needs to read more of Anthony Wells or Mike Smithson on polling.  When Tony Blair demolished the Conservatives in 1997 he won 43% of the vote.  When Thatcher destroyed Michael Foot in 1983 she got 42%.   The current average Tory polling is 43% - enough by electoral calculus for a majority of 86 – pretty bloody hefty by UK standards.

I’m not being complacent here, but the real narrative that Cameron represents is one of gaining the Tories a hearing and then, with one blip, maintaining a steady lead over the Labour Party.  There are, I am certain, plenty of good arguments why a reversal in fortunes of a centre-right party that looked old, out-of-touch, absorbed in recriminations and increasingly irrelevant to its own country should have no relevance for a Republican party that looks old, out-of-touch, absorbed in recriminations and increasingly irrelevant to its own country.  I’m just not sure that O’Sullivan has articulated them.

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