Like the climate, British politics has seasons. The conference season, which opens the political year, is in September and October, beginning with the Trades Union Congress conference, ending with the Tory conference, and sandwiching Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the now electorally significant United Kingdom Independence party, henceforth UKIP, in between. This year the three mainstream parties have returned to Westminster feeling quite chipper while UKIP acknowledges that it had a “bad” conference.
Except for UKIP’s disappointment, this is not unusual. Spending four days off work in the company of like-minded people (and, these days, of lobbyists pretending to be like-minded) tends to produce a false euphoria of expectations. “Hey, we’re not as unpopular as we thought,” the delegates tell each other as they order another white wine. “We might just be on course to win the next election.” It is obvious, however, that if all three parties leave their conferences feeling cheerful, then two of them are being over-optimistic.
On this occasion it’s possible that all three parties are cheerful without cause. The Lib-Dems have the soundest reasons for optimism. Though they are doing badly in the polls — see below — their political strategy is rooted less in winning more seats than in holding the balance of power in a “hung Parliament” (one in which no single party enjoys an overall majority). Because this looks quite likely, their party leader, Nick Clegg (also the deputy prime minister in the current coalition government), came close to boasting that in the future the Lib-Dems would always be in government, restraining whichever party they partnered with from its customary ideological excesses. The media reported this as Clegg claiming that he, rather than the voters, would choose the government in the future so that elections would be little more than a formality.
That is a longstanding Lib-Dem ambition. But it sounds arrogant, and Clegg’s confidence in its prospects may be exaggerated. Because of the rise of UKIP, the Lib-Dems no longer have a monopoly of the protest vote. They are currently polling at around 10 percent — less than half their last general-election total and generally a point or two behind the new challenger. They can hardly expect to dominate the two larger parties if their parliamentary total falls sharply — to, say, 20 MPs or fewer (out of a total of 650).
That said, the Lib-Dems are closer to getting and keeping power after the next election than either Labour or the Tories. Labour is suffering from — or maybe enjoying — the psychological condition known as “cognitive dissonance.” It entered the conference season slightly depressed because its lead over the Tories had been shrinking throughout the year, and, worse, because this was widely attributed to the uninspiring leadership of Ed Miliband. He was seen as too young, too inexperienced, too geekish, and too left-wing — “Red Ed” in the vernacular.
Miliband may be all of these things, but he is also a risk-taker. He is Labour’s leader today because he took the great risk of standing in the leadership election against his popular brother David, who had earlier shrunk from just such boldness against the widely disliked Gordon Brown and whose political strategy was to stand in an elegant pose waiting for his coronation. Red Ed looked at the polls below the headline figures; he saw that the underlying tendencies still suggested a Labour victory — Labour leads the Tories by margins of between four and nine percentage points. He therefore decided to adopt a bold left-wing appeal to the voters that would give him a strong mandate in government if, as he calculated, Labour won. The ground on which he launched this appeal was the cost of living, especially fuel prices, which under the coalition has been rising inexorably. So Miliband proposed to impose an energy-price freeze for the first 20 months after his election.
That pledge was widely (and rightly) denounced as a deterrent to necessary investment in energy and as a return to the 1970s world of blackouts. But as Prime Minister David Cameron ruefully admitted, it struck a popular chord. Above all, the Labour faithful loved it. They left the conference feeling that Miliband was a more substantial and principled leader than they had formerly thought. While he was still enjoying this boost, Miliband was handed a bonus. The Daily Mail attacked his father — Ralph Miliband, a famously Marxist academic, whom his son had often lauded as his political inspiration — as a man who “hated Britain.” This attack was entirely justified, but it was a blunder. All that Red Ed had to do by way of reply was to say that he was outraged at this unfair smear of dear old “Dad.” The country swooned; the Mail’s proprietor, Lord Rothermere, apologized (its editor, Paul Dacre, is made of sterner stuff); and both Labour and its leader rose in the polls.
Thus far Miliband is showing, ominously, that leftist politics can be popular. He is burying New Labour and resurrecting socialism. And he is cleverly exploiting his “dad” to weaken and regulate the media and to rule criticism of Marxist politics out of order in polite society. An iceberg looms across his bow, however. The just-published memoirs of Damian McBride, a notorious Labour spin doctor, have shown that Gordon Brown’s inner circle, in first the Treasury and then Downing Street, ran a series of poisonous campaigns not only against the Tories but also against Tony Blair, his New Labour supporters, and anyone else who stood in Brown’s way. The Borgias look scrupulous by comparison. Miliband was a member of that inner circle. Not only the Daily Mail will want to publish the details of his involvement. For the moment, though, Labour has seized the initiative.
#page#Given that, the Tories ought to have been gloomier at their conference. But they convinced themselves that because an economic recovery has arrived almost two years before the election to happen in May 2015, they will coast to victory or its near-equivalent in time. UKIP’s poor conference — one of their MEPs (members of the European Parliament) made a poorly judged sexist joke and was suspended from the party — gave the Tories further encouragement. It seemed to justify the Cameron gibe that UKIP was a fruitcake party that would helpfully self-destruct before 2015. They believe that they have several policies — on workfare and welfare reform, for instance — on which the voters prefer their approach to Labour’s. Margaret Thatcher, from whom the Cameronians once distanced themselves, became their heroine and example. All these things — plus good speeches from Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and a loyal-for-the-duration London mayor Boris Johnson — sent them home hopeful and even happy.
As Miliband has grasped, however, the brute electoral facts are as discouraging for the Tories as they were before the conference season. Britain’s electoral system is distorted by a bias that requires the Tories to get a lead in votes of about six percentage points in order to win a knife-edge majority in parliamentary seats. At present the Cameron Tories, at between 32 and 34 percent of voters, lag behind Labour by up to nine points. How might they catch up? Well, UKIP is currently getting 10 to 11 percent of votes, which, if they went Tory, would give the party a healthy parliamentary majority. Some of those conservative voters may go home, but nothing like 10 percent. Most dispassionate observers think that UKIP’s final tally will stay above 6 percent (more than twice its 2010 figure). That would consign the Tories to varying levels of defeat even if UKIP failed to win a single seat. Finally, as Miliband’s shrewd choice of the cost of living as his main ground of attack illustrates, Britain’s economic recovery may not be the electoral panacea that Chancellor Osborne clearly hopes for. Even if the recovery proceeds as expected, the take-home pay of the average voter will be lower in real terms in May 2015 than it was in 2010. And, finally, polls suggest that Labour is preferred to the Tories on the latter’s chosen ground of welfare and policies for “hard-working people.” What this points to is a 2015 election strategy by the Tories that concentrates heavily on negative campaigning against Red Ed and his revival of socialism.
Even there, however, the Tories are hampered in any attack by their own embrace of “progressive” issues during Cameron’s crucial “modernizing” phase of opposition. Take, for instance, the issue of rising energy prices. Miliband ought to be vulnerable on that issue since a major cause of their steady increase is the Climate Change Act, which Miliband personally guided through Parliament onto the Statute Book and, which requires energy companies to compel consumers to subsidize “renewables” through their (rising) energy bills. A Tory party that logically followed its own free-market convictions would make hay with the contradiction between Miliband’s two policies of freezing and raising energy prices. Unfortunately for the Tories, the party voted solidly in favor of the Climate Change Act, with only five brave dissenters rejecting it. And because the Tories are coalition partners with the radical-environmentalist Lib-Dems, they are still locked into the policy of subsidizing renewables via consumer energy bills. Their propaganda trumpets can only give an uncertain sound.
These portents argue against a Tory victory. They suggest that the two most likely election results are an outright Labour victory and a hung Parliament. A hung Parliament would create havoc and strife in all three parties. Exactly what kind of havoc would depend on which party won how many seats. Cameron and Clegg would doubtless want to continue the coalition, but the Lib-Dem Left and the Tory Right would both oppose that continuation or else seek to impose conditions on it that the other party would resist. If Labour became the largest party, then a Lab–Lib-Dem coalition would be all but unavoidable. If the Tories, then Cameron and might be willing to split their parties in order to stay together. And if UKIP had a significant number of seats — which is unlikely — then the Tories could conceivably split in two directions as some went with UKIP and some with the Lib-Dems. Indeed, a new Center party uniting Cameron Tories with the more conservative Lib-Dems while dropping the Right looks something like the logical direction of Cameron Toryism. Getting there, however, would be brutal and uncertain.
By contrast an outright Labour victory would make life unpleasant but simple for the Tories. Cameron would leave the leadership pretty quickly, to be succeeded by someone not closely identified with the “modernizing” strategy that would then have lost two elections. A new leader — Boris, Michael Gove (a “modernizer” but one admired by non-modernizers), Owen Patterson (a neo-Thatcherite minister), or someone as yet unknown, but certainly not George Osborne, who would be seen as Cameron Mark Two — would be selected and begin to map out a new course for the party. That would almost certainly include a constituency-by-constituency electoral pact with UKIP, which is fast becoming a blue-collar conservative party with strong appeal in those regions and classes that at present are Tory-Free Zones.
Distinguishing between defeats is not the most pleasant of intellectual games. But a Labour victory, reducing the long-term importance of the Lib-Dems to both main parties, seems like the better of those two outcomes. And, in the end, the more conservative outcome too.