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Tim Bale: The problem of party change

Tim_bale Tim Bale teaches politics at Sussex University and is writing a book on the Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron.  Here he analyses David Cameron's challenges in changing the party, a topic he will be speaking on at this weekend's Political Studies Association conference.

So it looks like the polls, and therefore the party, are back on track after something of an anxious summer.  The ‘Brown bounce’ may well be over, its demise apparently hastened by David Cameron’s end of summer ‘fightback’ – a much-welcomed move back on to traditional Tory territory like crime, immigration and Europe, albeit with enough mentions of the ‘broken society’ and ‘three-dimensional approaches’ to keep advocates of the ‘And Theory’ happy.

Conservatives should be able to go back to school with a spring in their steps, the alarming prospect of an autumn election a distant, even an amusing memory.  Roll on the government’s mounting inner turmoil over Europe, the impact of a global credit crunch feeding into the real economy, and whole host of as yet unforeseen but surely inevitable calamities which will make it clearer than ever that, at last, it really is time for a change.  After a bit of a wobble, we might, it seems, be talking not about if the party takes office, but when.

But hang on.  Can it – will it – really be that easy?  Probably not.

The first warning is one often sounded in the small print but bears repeating ad nauseam.  Just as one or two bad polls shouldn’t make provoke mass suicides, one or two (or even eleven and twelve) good polls don’t mean the next election’s over bar the shouting.  For one thing, polls are only an artificial snapshot that can turn for all sorts of reasons above, beyond and despite what this or that politician said on programmes, or in papers (or websites) that only the politically-obsessed minority paid any attention to.  For another, underneath the headline figures there often lurk rather more worrying numbers on which party voters rate highest on certain key issues and who they’d prefer as PM.

Indeed, this is the second warning – or, better put, uncomfortable truth.  For all David Cameron’s considerable skill there is less evidence than one might hope for that the public has changed its mind on the strengths and weaknesses of the two main parties on the issues that (historically anyway) tend to decide elections.

Those contests are not about a rationale (or even irrational argument) between parties on the great matters of the day.  Rather, they are about each party trying to ensure that the issues it ‘owns’ are more ‘salient’ in the minds of the electorate than those owned by its opponent.  Since there is as yet no direct entry for the parties into the brains of voters, they concentrate their efforts on what they regard as the next best thing – the media.

The problem is that the public has a nasty habit of not paying a great deal of attention to the media agenda at election time, preferring instead to prioritize the perennial over whatever the politicians or journalists tell them is more pressing.  So while of course it makes sense for Tories to try and make the next election about crime, immigration and possibly even Europe, and while it is clearly nonsense to suggest that such issues only resonate with the semi-mythical ‘core-vote’, hoping that they alone will do the business for you is a fool’s errand, as William Hague and Michael Howard know only too well.  The voters have a nasty habit of discounting such issues in favour of old favourites like health, education and the economy on which – for the moment at least – Labour still retains its traditional leads.

In other words, Mr Cameron can’t – and I suspect won’t if an early election really does prove to be off the cards – allow a narrowing in the polls to deflect him from a couple of more important tasks.  One is changing the party so it looks, sounds and says things that will allow the average voter (supposing for a moment such a creature really exists) to say to him or herself that the Conservatives once again ‘represent/stand for people like me’.  The other is to overturn, or at least narrow the gap on those issues that (even if you genuinely believe Britain is a broken society or an alien country or risks sliding by stealth into a European superstate) probably do more than most others to help make up voters minds.  These – look into my eyes, only into my eyes – are health, education and the economy, health, education and the economy, health, education and the economy….

Joking aside, we have to be careful when we think about change and leadership in political parties.  As a Tory journalist once put it, 'Any party can find a new leader but few leaders can find a new party'.  They are faced with trying to turn around a complex, occasionally dysfunctional, organization that – despite the common wisdom concerning the ‘presidentialisation’ and ‘mediatisation’ of modern politics – academic research suggests is still very important to voters and electoral success.  A party, while clearly not entirely separate from its leadership, is still an important ‘heuristic short cut’ for voters who have little time and little interest in politics.  If it is, as some suggest a brand, perceptions of that brand are very sticky and don’t change easily even if the face of the brand changes.  Voters may well warm to the new leader, but they can and will distinguish between him and what he’s selling – just as they routinely reject products endorsed by celebrities they love.

Voters are also capable of distinguishing between the assertion and the reality of change.  At a minimum, genuine party change would cover the following: personnel; organizational rationalization and retooling; policy selection (or at least emphasis); explicit distancing from past practice; and finally the facing down of internal opposition to all these.

If a party has, like the Conservative Party, come to be seen, whether we like it or not, as too right-wing and unrepresentative by the majority of voters who locate themselves (rightly or wrongly) at the centre of the political spectrum and as ‘ordinary’, then it needs to signal its move back towards them.  It also needs to ensure it has the infrastructure and the materiel to translate even a slim advantage into a winning one.  It can do this by doing the following:

a) appointing fresh, more moderate faces unconnected with past ‘failure’ to its front-bench team;

b) equipping local parties in marginals with the human and financial resources they need to win (even if that means tranfers of such resources from other areas) and get a grip on the party’s bureaucracy and research and media operation;

c) de-emphasizing (although not ignoring completely) the issues it traditionally ‘owns’, and ranging into enemy territory;

d) pointing out (in the least damaging but still convincing way possible) where it went wrong in the past and how it will make sure it doesn’t make the same mistakes again;

e) containing and (if possible be seen to quash) internal opposition to a, b, c and d.

Taking each of these indicators in turn, it is not clear that David Cameron, for all his manifest ability and effort, has (yet at least) managed to change the Conservative Party.

This may well be because it is still early days.  Or it could be because Team Cameron thinks it has done just about enough and that, as some of its internal critics suggest, to do more would sell the ideological pass.  But there is a third, more worrying but in some ways more interesting possibility, and that is that Mr Cameron knows he probably needs to do more but simply cannot –as the talismanic row over grammar schools suggested.

This could be because talk of an early election suggested he had to go with what he had.  In that case, he may well be able to breathe easier now and carry on.  Or it could be because, in fact, there is only so much any individual leader (even one so constitutionally unconstrained as the leader of the British Conservative Party) can do to change his party – and change perceptions of his party – before the returns begin to diminish and the costs mount.  Leaders, in other words, might ultimately be less powerful than the venerable but inertia-prone organisations they are tasked with running, and are therefore less powerful than we commonly think.

In pulp fiction and comic books, tradition holds, an author or artist could always escape the corner into which he had painted himself, and his hero simply by beginning the next exciting instalment with ‘And with one bound he was free.’  For those who analyse politics, and more importantly for those who actually do politics – especially in a parliamentary rather than a presidential democracy – things are seldom so easy. 


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