(2/10) Conservatives must recognise that bold changes are necessary to win the next election
By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter
If the Conservative Party could have designed an opponent it would probably have come up with something that looks an awful lot like the Labour Party led by Ed Miliband. Whenever they hold focus groups on their opponents, Tory strategists return with broad smiles across their faces. Two years after the trade unions chose him as the successor to Gordon Brown, there has been no statistically significant increase in the small percentage of voters who think Mr Miliband has prime ministerial qualities. Just 3% think he is charismatic. 4% say that he’s a natural leader. 5% agree that he’s strong. It will take a political earthquake to substantially alter these numbers and last week’s ‘one nation Labour’ speech by Mr Miliband, while impressive, was not a game-changer.
And it’s not just Mr Miliband who encourages the Conservatives. The Conservatives pinch themselves whenever they think of the yesteryear quality of the Shadow Cabinet and of Labour’s failure to detoxify its economic reputation. After it lost the last election — winning, it should not be forgotten, an even smaller percentage of the vote than was gleaned by the Tories in their landslide defeat of 1997 — it was imperative that Labour broke free from its association with debt, waste and taxes. Nothing better illustrates its failure to achieve this than the fact that Ed Balls — Gordon Brown’s leading economic adviser throughout the boom-to-bust years — is back in charge of Labour’s economic brief.
- FLATLINING: In 1992 John Major won 14 million votes and 41.9% of the vote. Conservatives haven’t come close since. For twenty years the party has struggled to win more than a third of the popular vote.
- SECOND BEST: Margaret Thatcher’s peak percentage of the popular vote was in 1979. Tony Blair never won a bigger percentage that he won in 1997. It’s been forty years since a Prime Minister won a bigger share of the vote after first being elected. And then Harold Wilson, in 1974, only added 2%. Conservatives need something like an extra 5%.
- CUTS-A-THON: Conservatives will be looking to increase their vote after making deeper spending cuts than anything Margaret Thatcher ever managed. The cuts won’t be finished either. They’ll continue well into the next parliament.
- INFRASTRUCTURE: The Conservative Party’s infrastructure is weak and that includes a hugely depleted grassroots membership and a less powerful and less loyal centre right press. If The Sun (Telegraph, Mail and Express) ever did win it for the Conservatives, it probably won’t ever win it for them again.
- SOUTHERN: Scotland is almost a no-go area for Tories. The idea that the Tory brand is toxic is spreading south of Hadrian’s Wall into significant parts of northern England. Conservatives are weaker in the North of England than in Margaret Thatcher’s day and, of course, much weaker in Scotland. They are third-placed in many urban Northern seats, a long way from recovery.
- DIVISIONS: Compared to Margaret Thatcher’s time when the Right was united and the Left divided, the reality of Coalition government has reversed things. The Left is currently united in the Labour column while the Tory vote is leaking to UKIP. This is probably the biggest and most dangerous fact of the parliament. Labour only need to keep most of Clegg's unhappy left-leaning voters and for UKIP to grow to about 5% and Ed Miliband will be Britain’s next Prime Minister.
- BOUNDARIES: Blair could win a 66 seat majority with 35% of the vote while Cameron fell twenty short with 36% of the vote. The failure of the boundary review means that none of this disadvantage will be ameliorated. Conservatives are now 20 seats further away from the finishing line than if the boundary review had passed.
- CAPITALISM: Faith in free market economics and the social mobility that it offers has been badly shaken by the great crash of 2008. People have grave questions over the capitalist system with which Conservatives are most associated.
- TOXIFICATION PART II: Coalition is limiting Cameron’s ability to take credit for the new priorities of his modern, compassionate Conservatism. Commitments to the basic state pension, inner city schooling and the NHS budget, for example, are being credited to the Liberal Democrats by large numbers of floating voters.
- SHALLOW MODERNISATION: Cameron is not seen to have kept faith with his early modernising commitments on the organisation of the NHS, combating climate change and promoting women ministers.
- UP-THE-OTHERS: The two party system and party loyalty are in long-term decline, suggesting hung parliaments and coalitions may be more frequent results of UK general elections. The headwind facing the two party system is strong and getting stronger.
- THE DARLING FACTOR: Labour look beatable so long as Ed Miliband is their leader but what if they change leader to someone more prime ministerial and/or who represents a real break with the Brown/Blair years? A change is unlikely – especially after Ed Miliband’s Manchester party conference speech - but it’s a bet rather than a strategy to place too much hope in Miliband’s survival.
- LIB-LABBERY: Most Lib Dem activists describe themselves as Left-wing and in order to maintain the idea of equi-distance between the Conservatives and Labour it is very likely that they will want a Lib/Lab pact in the event of another hung parliament.