A widely-reported analysis by the C Change pressure group has underlined the Tories’ electoral plight. This ten-point memo is divided in half. The first half looks at the nature of the plight. The second five points assess some of the commonly discussed remedies: (a) wait for Gordon Brown to succeed Tony Blair; (b) wait for Labour to become unpopular; (c) speak more confidently about our core beliefs; (d) become more compassionate; and (e) overhaul party campaigning. Many Tory MPs will complain that they have heard the C Change analysis before but it can be fairly countered that they have ignored it.
(1) C-Change’s report, which reviews a wealth of election and polling data, argues that most of the limited progress made by Michael Howard at the last election reflected support for Labour MPs switching to LibDem and other parties – allowing second-placed Tories to steal victories. 18 of the Tories’ 31 gains happened this way according to BBC research.
(2) The Conservative share of the vote has fallen from between 42% to 44% at the four general elections from 1979 to 1992 to between 31% and 34% at the last three contests. Conservative support has fallen particularly sharply amongst higher income and professional groups (a growing proportion of the total electorate): 54% of ABs voted Tory in 1992 but only 36% this year. A 30% advantage over Labour has all but disappeared.
(3) At the last election Conservative support strengthened in seats we already held (it increased by 1.4%) and fell in Labour seats (by 0.3%). Support for the Conservatives actually fell in both Midlands regions, Yorkshire and Humberside, and North East and North West England. The Conservative Party has no MPs and only 66 councillors in Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield (out of a possible 549).
(4) The result would probably have been worse for the Conservatives if turnout had been higher. 48% of non-voters would have supported Labour; 23% Liberal Democrat; and just 21% Conservative. It may also get worse if young people retain their present affiliations as they grow older. 38% of 18-34 year-olds voted Labour in May. 27% voted LibDem and only 26% Tory.
(5) In a section of their report entitled ‘It’s the values, stupid’ C Change spotlights some Populus polling on voter perceptions. This suggests that 52% of Britons believe that Labour and the LibDems share their values but only 34% think the same of the Tories. Other polling says that two-thirds think the Tories are out-of-touch and opportunistic. 58% don’t think they care about ordinary people. Half think Tories care more about the haves than the have-nots. 44% think Tories are narrow-minded and bigoted.
(6) The first oft-proposed remedy for the Tories’ plight might be called ‘waiting for Gordon’. But, as Iain Duncan Smith argued in last week’s Guardian, the arrival of Gordon Brown could easily be bad news for the Tories. The Chancellor is more trusted than Tony Blair – and YouGov found that people think he is best-placed to steer Britain through economic difficulties. Tony Blair probably has a more acute understanding of the importance of homeland security issues in forthcoming elections but Gordon Brown will offer the authenticity that Blair’s New Labour project has lacked.
(7) Remedy two is ‘wait for any kind of Labour unpopularity’. But the new big fact in British politics is the erosion of two-party system. At May’s election the LibDems moved into second-place in many more seats. When Labour unpopularity occurs it does not automatically translate into Tory popularity. Birmingham Yardley, Bristol W, Cambridge, Leeds NW and Manchester Withington were once Tory seats lost to Labour. Labour lost them in May… but to the Liberal Democrats.
(8) Remedy three is ‘more core’ messages. More Euro-scepticism. More tax cuts. More controls on immigration. Proponents of this policy point – like Lord Tebbit in Saturday’s Telegraph - to public support for such policies but, unfortunately, that support collapses when those policies become Tory policies. The Tory brand is so tainted that it has a reverse Midas touch effect on policies. 64% of voters agreed with a Conservative immigration policy when it wasn’t identified with the Tories. The level of agreement collapsed to 30% if voters knew it was a Tory policy.
(9) Remedy four is ‘become more compassionate’. Different people mean different things by ‘compassionate’. Some mean a new and less confrontational political tone. Some mean permissiveness and urge respect for unconventional behaviours including drug use and sexual promiscuity. Others believe that effective poverty-fighting cannot be indulgent and that it demands zero tolerance of drug abuse and other so-called minor crimes. These compassionate conservatives support encouragement of family life and the funding of often strongly values-based community entrepreneurs. It is perfectly possible to combine respect for homosexual and single parent families with greater support for more traditional families but it is a balancing act that has eluded Britain’s Tories up until now. We are still waiting for the individual who can embody a modern, compassionate conservative message.
(10) Remedy five is ‘better campaigning’. This was the first recommendation of Lord Ashcroft’s ‘Smell the Coffee’ wake-up call (published at the end of June and providing much of the data for the C Change report). Michael Ashcroft wrote that the Tories were too ambitious at the last election. His detailed analysis contends that the Tories might have won more seats if they had targeted 50 seats rather than the 164 seats that had scarce resources spread across them. Quoting the ‘you can’t fatten a pig on market day’ maxim he also recommends earlier investment of resources so that voters have time to understand and trust Tory messages. The ‘better campaigning’ remedy must also include massive investment in the kind of mass-connections-infrastructure that America’s Republicans have developed for fundraising and getting-out-the-vote.