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Opinion Pollster Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: A courageous confrontation with powerful elites may yet save the Conservative Party

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At last weekend's ConservativeHome conference (write-ups here), the stated focus was how to achieve an absolute majority for the Conservatives in 2015. But in truth, no-one believed it; they were really discussing 2020. The fact is that governments only add votes in very rare circumstances, and we are not in those circumstances: Eastleigh confirmed that a) LibDem seats will not easily collapse and b) the strong post-war trend of the two major parties losing vote-share is set to continue; and only Labour could win a majority on less than 40%.

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The chart above is the most important of all when considering what happens next. It suggests we face a future of coalitions. The parties have become so similar, and so removed from their traditional base (indeed any base), that it is hard to imagine either of them approaching 50% without taking a radical path. It is more likely they will become practised in the art of the power-sharing deal.

This may after all be no bad thing. The similarities between parties may be the result of a maturing system which produces pragmatic compromises. After all, in spite of so much clamouring for more distinctive manifestos, few propose any strong and credible alternative solutions.

It's all about modernising the concepts of 'One Nation' politics. The nation today has a different character of unity, superficially more varied, more mosaic, but also less divided, held together by intertwined media and a culture that binds through constant multi-layered communication. The disintegration of party loyalty is a wising-up, for who can believe one side has most of the answers, the competence, and the trustworthiness?

In such conditions, majorities are harder. But surely not impossible. There are at least two laws we can count on in the physics of society: mean reversion (everything trends back to average) and the risk-reward ratio. Things will usually flatten out except when you are prepared to take a chance. That, I suppose, is leadership: the bigger reward can only come from taking the bigger risk. Surprisingly perhaps, one can imagine a one nation conservatism that feels radical and yet embraces everyone. It could only be achieved through a bold redesign, not a safety-first warming-up of old ideas. It will not be about homilies - although it will contain some traditionalism it will also convincingly espouse a new dynamic egalitarianism that is all about openness and opportunity.

The Conservatives' biggest problem is that they are seen as being 'for one section of society ', not 'for the whole country' - by a whopping 52% to Labour's 21%. Yes, they are credited with 'Taking the tough, unpopular decisions' by 44% to 9%, but that's just good for a crisis. The emotional bias to Labour ('Heart is in the right place' by 31% to 23%) could give it the edge as we re-emerge into a sunnier world.

Look at what happened to Obama v Romney last year: the exit poll provided remarkable evidence for the power of social solidarity over other political virtues: on 'sharing my values', being a 'strong leader', and having a 'vision for the future', Romney was way ahead; but on one single measure, Obama's majority was shattering: he beat Romney by 81% to 18%.

Shares my values: Obama 42%; Romney 55%

Is a strong leader: Obama 45%, Romney 61%

Has a vision for the future: Obama 45%, Romney 54%

Cares about people like me: Obama 81%, Romney 18%    

That's the bullseye. Forget about searching for some mythical 'centre' of policy (see Peter Hoskin's posting on my charts showing no 'centre' for the big policy debates) and concentrate on that nation-embracing emotional connection.

It can't be done except with courage. You have to be yourself and yet also be someone the nation sees as 'on my side'. It can't be schemed but it can be created. As my YouGov colleague Peter Kellner has pointed out, authenticity, that rare trump card of modern politics, is granted to those who are seen to take risks, not to those who play it safe. A courageous fight on behalf of the people against vested interests, really taking on the powerful elites - from big business to big bureaucracy - is the unsafe way to the bigger reward.


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