Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Not the Labour Party

This week's Saturday column in the Newcastle Journal focuses on the Conservatives and specifically on whether David Cameron needs to do more to set out a distinctive vision for the country.


Of all the many political truisms that get trotted out from time to time, one of the most oft-heard but possibly most misleading is the one that says oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

It is true there has been the odd election where that has been the case, but by and large, it is bunkum.

In the last election, in 2005, for instance, an unpopular and discredited Labour government was grudgingly returned to office not on its own merits but for fear of what a Michael Howard-led administration might do.

Another election that was “lost” by the opposition as opposed to “won” by the government was Labour’s “suicide note” election under the leadership of Michael Foot in 1983. The contests in 1987, 1992 and 2001 fall into a similar category.

The 1997 election was a bit of a special case. Perhaps uniquely in the past 40 years, this was an election which the opposition did as much to win as the government did to lose.

John Major’s government may have been universally derided – but Tony Blair never took victory for granted, and his mantra of “no complacency” continued long after it became obvious to everyone else that he was heading for a landslide.

Practically the only election in modern times where the old cliché about governments and oppositions did hold true was 1979, when Margaret Thatcher’s Tories defeated Jim Callaghan’s Labour.

This was not so much a triumph for “Thatcherism” which was only a half-formulated ideology at that point, as a defeat for Old Labourism in the wake of the chaos of the Winter of Discontent.

So what’s all this got to do with the present day? Well, it is clear that the next general election, if it were held tomorrow, would be another which fell into the 1979 category.

We have in this country at the present time a government that seems to have decisively lost the public’s confidence, yet an opposition that has not yet done enough to earn it.

In 1979, people voted for Mrs Thatcher despite having little idea what her government would look like – it is possible that had they known it would mean 3m unemployed, she would not have won.

Likewise today, David Cameron appears to be on course for an election win even though very few people have any clear idea what sort of Prime Minister he will turn out to be.

Mr Cameron’s true appeal would currently appear to rest on the fact that he represents the Not Labour Party, and that he is Not Gordon Brown.

The collapse of public confidence in the government has yet to be matched by any great outpouring of public enthusiasm for the Tories – hardly surprising given that Mr Cameron has turned the party into a policy-free-zone.

What we do know is fairly unconvincing. For instance, we know Mr Cameron would stick to Labour spending plans for much of his first term, while somehow delivering a large cut in inheritance tax for the richest 6pc of voters.

Meanwhile he has yet to discover a compelling “Big Idea,” while a lot of what he says is merely vacuous mood-music such as “let sunshine win the day.”

There are basically two schools of thought within the Conservative Party as to how they should respond to the current crisis facing the Brown administration.

Essentially, the debate is over whether they should follow the sort of strategy successfully employed by Mrs Thatcher in 1979, or the one equally successfully employed by Mr Blair in 1997.

Some argue that the party now needs to do very little in the way of setting out a new policy agenda, and simply sit back and let the government continue to destroy itself.

Others, however, maintain that this is not enough, and that the party still needs to articulate a clear vision of what it will do with power, as Mr Blair did to great effect between 1994-97.

This is in essence a refinement of the continuing debate within the Conservative Party over how far it needs to change in order to be entrusted again with the nation’s destiny.

By and large, those who fall into the “modernising” camp are arguing that the party still needs to do more to “decontaminate” the Tory brand.

But the seeming inevitability of a Tory victory has latterly encouraged the “traditionalists” who want Mr Cameron to stop the political cross-dressing and place more emphasis on cutting taxes and cutting crime.

At the moment, this camp seems to have the upper hand – there has been markedly less talk from Mr Cameron in recent weeks about the importance of winning from the “centre ground.”

But whichever side prevails in this argument will ultimately depend on what happens to the government.

There is still time for Mr Brown to recover, although that really depends on an improvement in the economy that is looking less and likely with each new doom-laden forecast.

The only other alternative for him is the so-called “go for broke” strategy which involves him throwing caution to the winds, doing something radical, and somehow discovering a convincing narrative.

There is also, of course, time for Labour to change its leader again, although many Labour MPs fear that would now do no more than avert a landslide.

Logically speaking, a situation in which a government has lost the public’s support but an opposition has not yet earned it should have “hung Parliament” written all over it.

Oddly enough, that is what Jim Callaghan’s pollsters told him was the best he could hope for if he were to go to the country in the autumn of 1978, as everyone expected him to.

As I have pointed out before, had Mr Callaghan known that his delay would lead not to outright Labour victory but to 18 years of Tory rule, he would have taken that hung Parliament.

Three decades on, I suspect that the current generation of Labour MPs would take it, too.

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Anonymous said...

"....Tony Blair set out his policies with great effect between 1994/7". Apparently.

We heard about 'education, education, education'. But what was his education policy? Could you have said in 1997? Can you say in retrospect?

The chattering classes didn't enquire; he was left-of-center, clean, fresh and new. They wanted him to win---his charm was enough.

Anonymous said...

Cameron seems trapped in a classic Conservative attempt to square the circle. How do you simultaneously defend the free market and family stability when the former constantly undermines the latter? No-one has solved the puzzle since Marx first defined it more than a century ago, but Dave deserves credit for having a go. It's an implicit rejection of Thatcher who either would not or could not see that her economic and social policies were fundamentally at odds with each other.

Praguetory said...

I think the centre ground has moved. Crime-fighting and tax cutting are both increasingly popular ideas in the wider public.

MatGB said...

Hmm, not sure about '92. I think Major genuinely 'won' that election when everyone predicted he would lose. Sure, Sheffield and similar didn't help, neither did residual lack-of-targetting from both opposition parties.

Definitely of the opinion the Tories (especially other Cabinet members) were expecting to lose.

But overall I think the trueism is a useful analytical tool with limits, we just need to work on what those limites are.

Letters From A Tory said...

Of course Cameron needs to do more to set out his vision - he's freely admitted that the Conservative policy work is far from complete at the moment. However, once the policy work is done it will be curtains for Labour.

J said...

Erm, Paul...

The maxim "Oppositions don't win electiong; governments lose them" clearly only holds true when there's a change of power. True in 1979; true in 1997; and it will likely be true in 2010.

When there's no change in power, it's because the government hadn't been bad enough to lose (including 1992 and 2005, barely in each case).