Politics & Policy

Alarm Bells for the Tories

David Cameron rallies supporters in Corsham. (Matt Cardy/Getty)
The party of the free market is becoming the party of price controls and subsidies.

Today and yesterday in the U.K., six polls have been published on the state of the parties in the election race. Four of them showed Labour pulling ahead; two, the Conservatives. Britain Elects has the latest Populus poll, for April 8–9, based on interviews conducted over those two days, which is accordingly the most recent snapshot of public opinion:

LAB — 33% (-)

CON — 31% (-)

UKIP — 16% (+1)

LDEM — 8% (-2)

GRN — 6% (+2)

Now, there are exactly four weeks between the publication of these polls and election day (May 7). As the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson remarked many years ago: “A week is a long time in politics.” And as every commentator has been careful to stress, this is the most unpredictable election since the Second World War. Much can and will happen between today and May 7 to make it still more unpredictable. Even with all these qualifications, however, these polls are a disappointing opening for the Tories, who entered the campaign in a modestly confident mood.

After all, on four of these polls, Labour would win and Ed Miliband would become prime minister. He might even manage to do so on the basis of the other two polls putting the Tories slightly ahead. Britain’s electoral system is biased against the Tories — something that their Coalition allies, the Lib-Dems, fought successfully to preserve in a fit of spite following the referendum defeat of the electoral system they wanted. This is manifestly unfair, and on the part of the Lib-Dems, treacherous. But the Cameron Tories were so anxious for a Coalition deal that they failed to nail down a firm guarantee on that point in the negotiations. As a result, they are reduced to hoping that the Scottish Nationalists will win enough seats from Labour in its former “heartland” to allow them to sneak through as the largest plurality.

Worse, in addition to the headline two-party figures, there are one or two other ominous signs for the Right buried in the fine print. First there is the “stickiness” of UKIP voters. David Cameron appealed to them this week to “come home” to the Conservatives. Most election experts have been assuming that this would happen, with UKIP falling from its present 14–16 percent to 9–10 or even less. Some recent polls did indeed show falls, but nothing of that size. But this latest batch of polls has fresh disappointments for the Tories: UKIP’s share of the vote is not declining very far; in some polls it is not declining at all. And even when it does decline — see Fraser Nelson in today’s Telegraph — it’s because UKIP sympathizers defect to Labour as well as to the Tories. As Henry Olsen has pointed out many times, blue-collar voters across the Anglosphere don’t belong to any party these days. Labour has lost their loyalty, but the Tories have failed to win it. So UKIP has nipped in and won millions of them — and so far it’s keeping most of them.

Still more alarming, for the first time in any poll, Ed Miliband has pulled slightly ahead of David Cameron in their relative approval ratings. It’s only one poll, and Miliband still trails Cameron elsewhere. But since the Conservatives have invested heavily in the idea that Miliband is unimaginable as a prime minister, that is an unexpected cause for modest alarm. As I argued earlier in the week on National Review, this was always a risky strategy, because once voters began to look seriously at the Labour leader — as they were bound to do after the campaign began — they would not see a clueless moron but a dark-suited, apparently competent, young professional. And his approval rating would bounce upwards as a result. Now that this is happening, the Tories have switched to depicting Miliband as a ruthless operator who stabbed his brother in the back to become Labour leader and who will stab Britain in the back, too, for some other dark purpose. It’s not very persuasive; a key Tory argument is now sowing confusion.

A final Tory disappointment is that one polling result that is favorable to them doesn’t seem to have much resonance in the real world. Much punditry has been rooted in the expectation that the polls would about now show the Tories rising because the British economy is doing better — creating jobs, economic growth, and so on. Polls do indeed show that the Tories enjoy strong leads over Labour on the issue of economic competence, and 56 percent of voters believe the government has done a good job on the economy. This economic success has been exaggerated, as Jeremy Warner points out in today’s Telegraph: Britain’s indebtedness is still high and rising; everyone knows that massive cuts in government spending have to occur in the next parliament; and, above all, productivity (on which improved living standards must eventually depend) has stagnated during this administration. From the government’s viewpoint, however, the worst thing about this success is that so far it hasn’t won back much electoral support.

That may change — the Tories are making the improved economy and their economic competence their strongest campaign themes. But until it does (and in case it doesn’t), they plainly need to appeal to the voters on other issues. Tim Montgomerie, the Tory columnist at the Times of London who founded the influential website Conservative Home (ten years old today) and who recently launched the Good Right website as well, is one voice calling for a Tory manifesto that will offer some idealism and tout the government’s moral successes to complement (and perhaps soften) its raw appeal to material self-interest. Tories will certainly attempt something like that.

But the problem may go deeper than that solution. To some extent, the Tory party under present management has lost its sense of identity and its natural instincts. It is so anxious to avoid the “Nasty Party” label that it shrinks from policies it would normally celebrate and embraces ideas that would usually make it uncomfortable. Take the three Tory policies that emerged from yesterday’s campaigning:

1. David Cameron promised to freeze railroad prices for five years. Several commentators have criticized this as an example of the Tories’ adopting an “auction” approach to the election that the Labour party can always win because it is comfortable with promising voters the moon and sixpence. It is that, of course, but it goes far beyond English social democracy in its familial relationships. It is a policy typical of Third World socialist kleptocracies that try to buy off popular discontent by price controls and subsidies that then encourage overconsumption, deter investment, and accumulate huge fiscal deficits. If you want to see where Britain will be headed if this policy is adopted by the next government, take a train in Egypt or Pakistan.

2. Another policy unveiled yesterday — perhaps to meet Montgomerie’s demand for idealism — will require companies employing more than 250 people to give their employees three days off work per month in order to volunteer for social-cum-charitable work. It is supposedly an expression of the “Big Society” idea that Cameron advocated in the 2010 election but that somehow got lost in a Whitehall filing cabinet in the years since then. People and bodies that usually support the Tories have been livid in their criticisms of this proposal. One asked slyly if the rule would mean employees in the over-stretched health service taking off three days per month to paint huts and garages. It is like a Tory parody of socialist utopianism: It extends the regulatory state that the Tories are supposed to be restraining; it will mean yet another hike in the business costs they want to control; it will lead many businesses to suddenly discover that they should stop hiring when they reach 249 employees; and far from encouraging social voluntarism as an alternative to state bureaucracy in welfare, it will mean the state organizing and supervising both the private business sector and voluntary social bodies to finance and perform tasks that meet the official criteria of good works.

3. The Tories allowed it to become known — rather than actually announcing it — that, if elected, they will let the U.K. fall below the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP for defense spending. They will, however, meet the target of 0.7 percent for foreign aid. This conjunction is both absurd and shameful. The “ring-fencing” of foreign aid (which will rise automatically as and if the British economy grows) is an act of morally vain conspicuous compassion. It is not justified by the record of foreign aid, which has an international dependency effect, and there have been numerous credible reports that many of the projects U.K. aid supports are wasteful and unnecessary. Higher defense spending by comparison is necessary both to meet the NATO target that Cameron himself demanded at the NATO summit last year and to provide the U.K. forces with the equipment that they need (and often don’t have today) to perform the dangerous tasks in Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere that the Cameron government has given them. UKIP — which now claims (accurately, alas) to be the only British political party supporting the 2 percent NATO target — promptly produced a poster showing a British soldier holding out his helmet as a begging bowl. It was straight out of the Thatcher playbook for the 1983 and 1987 elections.

What these three policies reveal is a political party that has lost its way. The party of the free market has now become the party of subsidies and price controls; the party of spontaneous social voluntarism has become the party of state-organized welfare; the party of patriotism and a strong national defense has become the party of military cheeseparing and strategic retreat. Even if some of these policies are justified, by budgetary necessity for instance, their overall impact is to produce a kind of mental and moral confusion in the party’s members and supporters, a sense of pointlessness, a kind of philosophical anomie as they are expected to advocate what they had previously denounced, a draining of loyalty and enthusiasm that can only be aroused by exaggerated depictions of how terrible the consequences would be if the other side won, but also a feeling that one’s own victory will seem more a burden than a triumph. And though these feelings will be obscured and diverted by partisanship in the campaign, they will emerge raw and increasingly painful on the morning after and in the days succeeding.

So the latest polls, though disappointing, are the least of problems for the government — and not just because they are far from fatal. Yes, the Tories can still win a good plurality of Commons seats if they play their cards right. Yes, they have some success stories they can boast about — in education, in welfare policy, in the economic recovery. Yes, they won these successes despite a terrible economic inheritance from Blair and Brown. And, yes, a Labour victory or even a minority Labour government would be a far worse outcome for Britain than the return of a Tory-led one. Whether they win or lose, however, they need to recover a sense of who they are, what they believe, and where they’re going. Or they will fail even when they succeed.

— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large at National Review.

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