About a week ago Mark Steyn invited me to discuss the Cameron Tory party’s prospects in the light of how Britain voted in the local and European elections. Sorry to be such a sloth about it, Mark, but here it is at last:
1. Mark is absolutely right to suspect that the party’s prospects fall somewhat below the headline predictions. These typically focus on the gap between the Labor and Tory percentages in opinion polls — “Tories nineteen points ahead, Heading for a 150 Commons Majority,” and so on. What these comparisons mainly measure, of course, is the astonishing collapse of the Labor vote. In the local elections, Labor scored its lowest percentage of the vote since the 1920s at 23 percent of the total. It did even worse in the European elections on the same day. Labor sank to third place in those elections behind both the Tories and the fledgling Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP.) It scored less than 16 percent of the national vote in those elections. It’s not hard to outperform a party that is performing so badly.
2. When you look at the Tory percentage on its own, however, the picture looks less rosy. In the local elections the Tory vote fell to 38 percent (from the previous local results percentage of 43 percent.) In the European elections the Tory vote rose slightly from its previous 26 percent — but only to a very modest 28 percent of the total. And national opinion polls since both these elections have generally shown the Tories as scoring between 37 and 40 percent. These figures are unimpressive, to say the least. Several psephologists (as election-watchers are known in Britain) have suggested that they are simply not enough to ensure a solid election victory in the election that must be held in the next year. How come?
3. Well, the two-and-a-half-party system that the British have been operating since the mid-seventies is skewed against the Tories. They need at least 40 percent to win barely while Labor can win handily with about 36 percent. The Tories are currently getting just below the figure they will need next year — and the conventional wisdom is that an opposition party is likely to lose some ground as the election approaches, the government recovers, etc. Tony Blair was scoring in the low-to-mid fifties a year before the 1997 election that brought him to power. So the Tories are more dependent than they can possibly like on the continued collapse of Labor for their own victory. So why aren’t they more worried?
4. They probably are more worried than they seem. They admit candidly that they desperately want Gordon Brown, whose popularity rating is under a frog at the bottom of a coalmine, to remain Labor leader. Opinion polls suggest that any other leader would make Labor competitive. Fortunately for them, Labor is remaining loyal to the dour Scot. In addition, the Tories can point to several factors other that are likely to count in their favor even if Brown goes.
(a) Their current doldrums are caused in part by the parliamentary expenses scandal that has tainted all major parties. Cameron has played the scandal quite well since it broke, and most people think that it will cease to harm the Tories significantly by a June election next year. Well, that could be right — but it could also be over-optimistic.
(b) The local election results suggested that the Tories were stronger in the important “marginal” constituencies than across the board. Not surprisingly since they have poured resources into winning these marginals. Probably they are right to see this as a significant advantage.
(c) They calculate that the rise in the votes of third parties, especially UKIP, in the local and European elections consists of disaffected Tories who will return to the fold in a general election — and on that point they may be mistaken to the extent of embracing a mistaken political strategy.
5. Cameronism was based upon the idea that future Tory victories could only be based on winning more votes from the metropolitan middle classes and the better educated. These votes had been drifting over time towards the third-party Liberal Democrats. This “centrist” strategy quite deliberately avoided attempts to win patriotic and tradition-minded working class votes disaffected from Labor — even though parties throughout the advanced world have been changing their class character with blue-collar workers moving right and “knowledge workers” moving left. Some Cameron strategists argued that this strategy had been tried in the two previous elections and had failed. (Those interested in such minutiae should read the NRO exchanges between me and Daniel Finkelstein — an actual living Cameron strategist — that followed my article in NR on Cameronism.) Going after such voters was anyway inconsistent with a strategy aimed at the culturally sensitive liberal middle-class who were thought to be more numerous and more winnable. Hence the early gestures of Cameronism towards radical Green politics, the endorsement of Labor’s policies on the budget and social spending (abandoned only after the financial roof fell in), the distancing from Lady Thatcher, the pledge (still being loudly maintained) to cut overseas aid last, if at all, in any budgetary strategy, and other policies of a progressive coloring.
6. The two recent sets of election results cast doubt on this whole approach.
(a) Labor’s vote has collapsed but none of it has gone to the Tories even though the main opposition party would usually benefit handsomely from such defectors. Most of these votes have gone instead to two “fringe” parties — to UKIP and to the all-but-fascist British National Party. The BNP surge is bad for the Tories, of course, but it is worse for the country. Margaret Thatcher annihilated an earlier fascist challenge from the National Front simply by winning voters tempted by it with the language of patriotism and social solidarity. Modern Tories don’t seem to be able even to talk the talk.
(b) Liberal Democrat votes have not gone to the Tories either for the sufficient reason that they have largely stayed with the Liberal Democrats. Their vote in the local elections rose even though, owing to the vagaries of two-and-a-half-party voting, the number of seats they won fell. Even if more Lib-Dem votes had been in play, the Tories would face competition for these essentially herbivore votes from parties such as the Greens — and maybe from Labor too after it has undergone a period of fasting and penance. In other words disaffected Lib-Dems have a number of ports in any storm.
(c) Finally and most importantly, as many Tory voters as Labor ones defected to UKIP in the European elections (and, to a lesser extent, in the local elections too.) Cameronism’s pale pastel colors were not exciting enough to persuade them to walk to the polls in the pleasant sunny weather that was then blanketing Britain. Donors are defecting too. And, privately, Tory MPs will admit that some of their best constituency workers are now supporting UKIP.
7. These are real problems but the Tories have yet to face them squarely. They have been largely silent on the BNP except to denounce it morally. They offer no ideas on winning its voters back to respectable conservative politics. On UKIP they tell themselves that the 17 percent of voters who chose the happy Euroskeptic few in recent elections will return to the Tory tribe in a general election. They may be right, but Cameron is making few concessions to win them back. His party’s official position on a referendum on the Lisbon treaty — he will hold one if the Irish have not yet ratified it; if they have, he will not “let matters rest there” — sounds too much like earlier Tory evasions on EUrope to win over experienced doubters. And tribalism in politics is not what it used to be. So even if most UKIP voters do indeed return to voting Tory, as is likely, what percentage of that 17 percent is most? Eight and a half percent? Six percent? Four percent? UKIP got 2.2 percent in the 2005 general election, but that was in less encouraging circumstances for the party. Suppose it rises only to three percent next time — that might be just the missing three percent that would otherwise put Cameron over the top and into Downing Street.
8. That said, Cameron is still the clear favorite to win the next election. He can improve his chances, even at this late hour, by adopting the kind of conservative policies that will convince voters worried by recession that he is a tough-minded realist who can tackle massive national problems. If he does win, he will likely owe his victory jointly to returning UKIP voters and to the specter of Gordon Brown. And he may win narrowly or even lose narrowly.
9. So, after 1400 words, I can agree with you, Mark: You were absolutely correct.