Thursday, October 12, 2006

Can Cameron Win the Next Election?

Introduction
Since David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservatives by a landslide last December, some have assumed he will be the next prime minister. After dominating politics for 18 years 1979-1997, the party had not looked like doing anything but losing once again in September 2005 when Labour still led by 9 points in the polls. And this despite an unpopular government beset by manifold problems. A succession of leaders from John Major, after 1992 when his government was bundled out of the ERM, followed by Hague, Duncan-Smith and then Michael Howard, had all tried to swing the party to the centre ground but had reverted to Thatcherite policies once again when their core vote threatened to crumble. Cameron seemed to be a revelation- young, smart, articulate and with a sprinkling, perhaps, of that stardust which had eluded the party since the days of Maggie. Nine months on Cameron has done so well, Conservatives have dared to hope the long cold spell dominated by the near political genius of Tony Blair, is coming to an end.

Why do Conservatives feel they have grounds for optimism?

1. End of Blair’s reign
There can be little doubt that Tony Blair has infuriated the Conservatives by his political dominance just as Maggie Thatcher did for Labour supporters. But now the feud at the heart of his government has caused him to stand down before the next election and probably in six months time. Voters eventually tire of even the most charismatic leaders and it has been clear for some time that Blair’s magic as a speaker and policy-maker has all but disappeared. It is obvious, from his speeches, even at conference, that Cameron admires Blair greatly and has modeled his style, if not his future career, upon him. So Tories are probably relieved and a bit mystified why he is going as, even in his weakened state, if May 2005 is any indication, he can still win elections.

2. Labour Splits
The alleged ‘coup’ orchestrated by Gordon Brown in September this year, highlighted deep divisions in the governing party. Voters do not like a divided party; as Lloyd George said: ‘You can’t make a policy out of an argument’. Regular revolts by Labour MPs on a variety of issues from foreign policy to anti-terrorism measures and ID cards, has exacerbated this impression.

3. Labour Sleaze
Ever since Blair came to power there were stories of rich men seeking Labour favours from Bernie Ecclestone to Rupert Murdoch and Lahksmi Mittal. But the scandals involving John Prescott this summer have reinforced the impression that this is a more than slightly corrupt government well past its sell-by date. Prescott’s lavish entertainment at the expense of Philip Anshutz- the casino billionaire with an interest in obtaining a licence to build a super casino on the Millennium Dome site- was a highly damaging news story.


4. Foreign Policy
While Blair’s domestic record has been generally pretty good, his forays into foreign policy have proved his undoing, especially: the ‘special relationship’ which he has made into a subordinate one for UK; Iraq where the situation has descended into chaos and continues to get worse. The Lebanon War acted as a lightning rod for the multifarious dissatisfactions with Blair in his party a month ago producing the alleged ‘coup’. And Afghanistan continues to fester as a conflict/peace-keeping operation Britain is unlikely to win given the failure of the USSR to tame the country with the full weight of its massive army. An ICM poll in the Sunday Telgraph 8th October showed over half of respondents urging withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is not to say that the Conservatives do not have problems in this area. By supporting the close alliance with America and the political stance of George Bush, the party cannot easily condemn Blair for his foreign policy. But at the same time Cameron is not directly implicated in the shambles of Iraq and has also nimbly sought to establish some distance from the USA in a recent speech.

5. Welfare Issues
Traditionally these have been solid Labour territory and indeed, in the Daily Telegraph on 3rd October, a Yougov poll showed only 42 per cent thinking the party could be ‘trusted to run public services such as schools and hospitals’. However, at the recent conference Cameron summed up his message to voters in ‘not three words, but three letters: N-H-S’. The Sunday Telegraph poll of 8th October showed-on a question relating specifically to the NHS- the Conservatives narrowly in the lead at 19 points to Labour’s 18(though 25 said ‘both and 34 ‘neither’).

6. Wasting Taxpayers’ Money
Polls also show that voters are very grudging about improvements in public services since Labour came to power, seldom registering approval. This suggests that adverse publicity regarding failures and ward closings signify highly but also that consumers have not experienced significant improvements. Indeed:
i) figures show that even though waiting lists have come down sharply, productivity in the public sector has not increased anything like at the same rate as funding suggesting significant wastage of investment.
ii) David Craig’s book, Plundering the Public Sector, (Constable, 2006), suggests £70bn has been spent, to little effect, by government on consultants fees.
iii) Several high profile policy failures have questioned the ability of the Labour government to govern efficiently: NHS IT project, costing billions, has proved a turkey; Treasury overpaid tax credits by £2bn which recipients were then asked tom repay; and millions in EU subsidies to farmers went unpaid. On top of all this came the foreign prisoners scandal in the summer whereby assigned deportations failed to take place.

7. Opinion Polls Show Cameron Succeeding
a) Party preference: A year ago Labour still maintained a 9 point lead over the Tories but than Cameron was elected leader in December 2005 and a dramatic change has occurred. After the debacle of the ‘coup’ Conservatives registered a nine point lead of their own in early September. While this soon leveled off and saw a deficit after Labour’s conference ‘bounce’, the ICM poll in the 8th October Sunday Telegraph, showed the Tories on 38 points with Labour on 32.

b) Cameron V Brown: on 22nd September, The Guardian led with poll figures showing that on: ‘potential as PM’, Cameron led by 35-32; ‘right direction for Britain’, Cameron led by 31-26; ‘able to work with cabinet collegues’ Cameron 39-22; ‘most honest’ Cameron 27-19 and ‘more pleasant personality’ Cameron by a crunching 52-17. But… best in crisis, Brown 32-25.

c) Lib-Dems: currently the polls indicate the Conservatives would still be short of an overall majority by 22 seats as a ‘hung parliament’ would be the result. The support for the Lib Dems might prove crucial. At the last election they took more seats from Labour than the Conservatives and could do so again if Labour choose a rightwing direction.

Conservative Grounds for Pessimism

1. The Economy’s Sustained Vigour
Since the humiliating expulsion of the UK from the ERM, and the giving of independence by Labour to the Bank of England to set ‘politics-free’ interest rates, the economy has maintained constant growth of some 2-3 per cent a year. Much of the credit must go to Gordon Brown for managing something unknown in the postwar period, though, ironically, voters do not allow him any, according to polls (a point which should be in the above category, of course). However, economic well being is usually of key importance in determining votes and once in the privacy of the polling cubicle, who knows how economic contentment might eventually cause crosses to be made?

2. Brown is a Tough Politician
The poll results quoted above under 7a) suggest there is not going to be a contest between the likely next Labour leader and the old Etonian Tory leader. But he served his apprenticeship in the brutal world of Scottish Labour politics and has managed to dominate the domestic agenda of his own government against the desire of his politically gifted colleague. He is not likely to roll over and allow Cameron to win serious and vigorous resistance. Cameron should not underestimate him.

3. Built in Pro-Labour Bias of the Electoral System
In May 2005 the Electoral reform Society calculated that even if Labour and Conservatives had polled the same amount of votes, Labour would have won 336 seats and Conservatives only 220. For the Tories to draw level with Labour in 2009, they will need to establish a lead of 7.5 per cent in their share of the vote and 9 per cent to achieve an overall majority. The irony is that the Conservatives vehemently oppose PR as they hope the electoral system will eventually swing to them and in any case advantage them once their vote rises above a critical point. But why is there such a bias?

a) Conservative support is more unevenly distributed over the country while Labour’s is more efficiently focused. For example between 1992 and 2001 Labour’s vote in Liverpool fell from 140,000 to 101,000 but it lost none of its five seats. In Northamptonshire however, Labour’s vote rose from 119,000 to 132,000 and it took five of the six Tory seats.

b) Population movements occur as families move from city centres to suburbs, and every ten years the Boundary Commission redraws the constituency boundaries. However the 2006 revisions are based on 2001 figures so are already out of date.

c) The review process is essentially political with parties arguing their corners to maintain or gain advantage. Despite predictions Tories would benefit from the changes in the 90s by up to 27 seats, Labour officials fought tenaciously behind the scenes. Professor Pippa Norris commented: ‘The Tories were just dozy; they did not understand the significance of the changes. By 2009 more boundary changes will come into force and will do something to mitigate the bias but it will still remain overall.

d) Tactical voting: as long as voters are aware of the standing of the other parties they can cast their votes tactically to frustrate their main rival. In 1997 many Lib Dem voters voted Labour to keep out the Tory but in the last two lections this has not been so marked a tendency.


4. Cameron has more to do than Blair in 1994
It’s true that Blair had to overcome a historical tradition while Cameron only has to neutralize Thatcherism but Blair faced a job half done by Kinnock- who did much of the ‘heavy lifting’ required during the late eighties- when he became leader in 1994. Cameron came to power after a genuine Thatcherite, Howard, had stood down and so had to start his re-education of his party from scratch. Perhaps this is why he has followed the model of Blair’s handling of the problem so closely so far.

5. Threat from Lib Dems
Cameron has to wary of this possible ‘inside-track’ threat. If the Lib Dems decide to follow the logic of their Orange Book contributors, they may swing further to the right and usurp Tory territory. Both parties are competing already on their Green agendas. Also the third party has to be kept reasonably onside in case negotiations are needed in the event of a hung parliament, though such an alliance is not likely to be acceptable to Lib Dem rank and file members.

6. Threat from other rightwing parties
The most obvious threat here is from UKIP; already more vocal now that Cameron has calmed the anti-EU frenzy. A tranche of rightwing members might decide Cameron’s refusal to promote euro-scepticism requires them to migrate to a party which is closer to their instincts. The same might even be true, on the issue of immigration, in respect of the BNP.

7. Lack of policies deters some support.
The Economist 29th September led with the question, ‘Who is David Cameron?’ Polls show voters are still unsure of what the new, shiny caring Conservative Party is really all about. Thatcher’s approach may have been ‘nasty’ from some points of view but it was clear and everyone understood it. So far Cameron has only produced nice calming mood music while holding back from specific policy commitments. So far this has been acceptable but voters and party alike will want the various party groups tasked with policy formulation to come up with the goods within something like six to nine months.

8. Party still carries negative image.
The poll in the Daily Telegraph, 3rd October, also carried a diagram showing voter perceptions of where certain politicians stood on the political spectrum. While Cameron was seen as reasonably close to the centre his party was well to the right. In contrast Blair was almost dead centre and Lib Dems, plus Brown closer to the centre than either Dave or his party. This shows Cameron has much to do in countering of drastic tax cutting and small statism of characters like Tebbitt, Redwood and Edward Leigh. Commentators have noted that the quite loud arguments with these Thatcherite figures at the recent party conference was good for emphasizing the young leader’s efforts to invent a ‘new’ version of his party.

9. Poll Lead not Big Enough
To be on track for victory Cameron needs to be closer to 10 points ahead in the polls. A few months before the 1992 election Labour were 25 points ahead and still did not win, so great is the advantage of the incumbent party.

Conclusion
There is still some time to go before the next election which must take place before May 2010 but will probably be in 2009. Brown seems the most likely candidate to take over from Blair yet at the moment seems to be running behind Cameron in the polls and the ‘momentum’ stakes. But with two and a half years to go until the election, it is far too early to make predictions with any reliability.

B J 9/10/06

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