Opinion: What is worrying Labour and the Tories? Part 2

Yesterday Chris Nicholson looked at what is worrying Labour. Today he turns to the Conservatives.

What’s worrying the Tories?

The consensus view after the local elections was that the Tories had done amazingly well and so had the least to worry about. But amongst strategists there are some very real concerns. The General Election had shown that Cameron’s attempts to de-toxify the Tory brand was still work in progress. Despite all of David Cameron’s efforts enough people were still unsure about the Tories to deny them a majority. Michael Ashcroft’s recent polling shows that there is still considerable work to do as people see the Tories as the party of the rich. And there is no sign of electoral fortunes reviving in cities such as Manchester and Sheffield or inner London areas such as Lambeth, Lewisham and Haringey where they held seats as recently as the 1990s.

Initially Cameron’s move for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats looked like a masterstroke to show the Tories as a modern liberal party. Indeed some of the ultra Cameroons such as Nick Boles started speculating about pacts or a merger with the Lib Dems to reinforce this. But the decision to come out so forcefully against AV (which a few in the party supported as a way of bringing about such a realignment) and the style of the No to AV campaign has put paid to whatever slim chances there were of that happening.

Now the fear is that the Lib Dems’ greater assertiveness within the coalition on issues such as NHS reform will define the Conservatives again as the nasty party. The Lib Dems would then “steal the credit” for fairer and more liberal policies which would have helped to show that the Tories really had changed. The greater confidence amongst backbench Tories, resentment against the “Yellow B**tards” and fulminations against Ken Clarke’s stance on criminal justice could reinforce this impression.

And there is a risk that a pincer movement from UKIP on the right and Blue Labour on the Conservative Party’s reputation as the party of law and order could take away one of their traditional strengths.

Then there is the economy. It already seems as though recovery is anaemic at best. What if there is no real sign of living standards improving by 2015? Will the Tories reputation for economic competence also take a big hit? They do not want to be know as just a government of deficit reduction and cuts. But despite its many relaunches, their one big idea, the Big Society, has completely failed to gain traction with the public.

It’s very early days, but just as after the 2005 election political commentators viewed the most likely General Election result as a hung Parliament a similar view may be emerging about 2015. So is this a reason to be hopeful for the Liberal Democrats? Possibly. But based on May 5th’s results the party most likely to be holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament would be the SNP not the Liberal Democrats. Secondly even if it is the Liberal Democrats, the smaller the size of the Parliamentary Party the more likely that, as in 2010, there will be no real choice as to which party to go into coalition with and hence the less influence the party would have in negotiating a coalition agreement.

So there is plenty for all three parties to worry about – and all still to ‘play’ for.

Chris Nicholson is Director, CentreForum.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • paul barker 26th May '11 - 1:39pm

    Reffering back to Labour theres an interesting peice on “Political Betting” comparing Millibands “ready for Government” figures with his Party.
    Only 3% of Voters strongly agreed that Milliband was ready to take power, needs some work.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th May '11 - 2:40pm

    I happened to come across a couple of copies of the Daily Mail recently, and found Peter Oborne’s comments in two recent article there on the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party fascinating. Horrible, but fascinating, and I do suggest those who want a real feel for what we are up against as a party reads this stuff.

    Oborne’s thesis is that the current government is “a Liberal government” and he proceeds to attack it on that basis. The issue here is that Oborne is viewing politics on a conservative v. liberal spectrum (lower case initial letters deliberate here), and he is firmly on the conservative side. Those aspects of Conservative Party ideology which Cameron is most willing to drop as part of the coalition compromise are those which are small-c conservative. We forget at our peril that there is a lot of mileage in small-c conservatism, and a lot of the Conservative vote is more oriented that way than towards the economic liberalism which is now the dominant ideology in the Conservative Party, and which chimes with those in the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg and fellow “Orange Book” types) who have been influenced by that sort of thinking.

    Most of what is sometimes described as the Conservatives “detoxifying” or moving away from being the “nasty party” is actually its dropping of small-c conservatism, or at least hushing it up a bit. In terms of its economic policy, it is still very much extreme right-wing – I use this in the traditional sense where “right-wing” means a defence of the current powerful forces in society and of their influence and privilege, and “left-wing” means critical of the current powerful forces and a desire to see power and privilege shifted and spread more widely.

    That is why those on the left-wing of the Liberal Democrats, who combine a left-right with a liberal-authoritarian view of politics (note, this is not quite the same as a liberal-conservative view) feel the party has given too much away in the coalition, while those on the right-wing of the Liberal Democrats, who don’t see politics in terms of the traditional left-right spectrum, are happier with the coalition and feel the party should be shouting out its liberal successes. Since neither side has a feel for small-c conservatism, neither side can see how much that wing of the Conservative Party feels it has given too much away.

    To describe the dropping of small-c aspects of the Conservative Party as “detoxifying” or ending the Conservatives being the “nasty party” is actually extremely patronising. It is jumping to the conclusion that small-c conservative views are nasty and unpopular, and so dropping them is something all will applaud. Now that comes across as VERY smug to those who happen to be somewhere towards the small-c conservative side in politics.

    The genius of the Conservative Party, as with the Republican Party in the USA, is to convince people with small-c conservative attitudes that economic liberalism and small-c conservatism are natural bedfellows, almost the same thing, and thus to get large numbers of people who feel they are voting for small-c conservatism actually to vote for economic liberalism. In fact the growth in scale of the economic powers in the free market means if anything economic liberalism and small-c conservatism are opposed forces. The destructive effect of the free-market when its dominant players are the huge scale multi-national corporations is immense. But what a great trick it is if that destructive power destroys what small-c conservatives value, and this destruction enrages them and makes them vote ever more furiously for what they feel is a small-c conservative party which is actually an economic liberal party, and the economic liberal policies of that party feed the destruction.

    In some ways it seems to me that the natural way for the coalition to develop would be for an avowedly Economic Liberal party to be formed from the Cameron Conservatives and the Orange Book Liberal Democrats, leaving a Social Liberal party on one side and a proper Conservative Party on the other side to do their own thing. The economic liberals who lead the Conservative Party know, however, that there is nowhere else to go for the small-c conservatives, so they can afford to ignore them. In the Liberal Democrats, some who view liberalism primarily as social may see the Green Party as a possible alternative. The tribalism and anti-democratic nature of the Labour Party is a big barrier for social liberals in the Liberal Democrats who might think of moving that way, however.

    During periods of economic uncertainty, liberalism can seem a bit of a frippery. When people are worried about their jobs and long term financial prospects, much of what dominates liberal thinking seems very much to be fringe issues. We saw this in the AV referendum, when people just didn’t want to know because it didn’t seem important compared to whether they would have a job next year, we will see it with any other effort for constitutional reform. We will also see it with much else that we may hold up as liberal triumphs gained from the coalition. When people are fearful for the future, they tend to think in a small-c conservative way. This may explain the paradox that right-wing parties tend to do well in periods of economic depression – they pick up the small-c conservative vote. Left wing parties have got themselves in a mess because they have tended to drift into being more social liberal than traditional left-wing, and so they lose when fearful people don’t think liberal issues are important.

    The biggest gap in UK politics now is for a party which can articulate small-c conservatism in a way which is not subservient to economic liberalism. The “Blue Labour” idea is, I guess, trying to go for that vote. So was the BNP, but they ARE toxic, and too toxic ever to be detoxified. Given that UKIP is actually an extreme free market party (and thus a party in full support of the biggest threat to UK independence), it is a damned cheek when it picks up small-c conservative votes misled by its superficial appearance. I do now fear something new and nasty coming on the scene and working on this gap.

    “Big Society” is an attempt to tap into small-c conservative attitudes, but it is doomed to failure because economic liberalism has destroyed what is needed to make it work. People are just NOT going to do all this voluntary effort stuff in the society all UK governments since 1979 have been working to build – one where dog-eat-dog competitive attitudes are made the supreme virtue, so doing anything which is not for cash payment is considered perverse. When you fear you are next in line for redundancy, when the constant exhortations to be more “competitive” and to meet the latest targets mean you feel you HAVE to work till you drop, and home is just a place to slump and be a passive consumer of what the big corporations provide, you are just NOT going to volunteer to do all that community stuff. The super-wealthy who feel secure in today’s society just can’t see that, that is why they are pushing “Big Society” and are puzzled that it doesn’t seem to be working. They are just so out-of-touch with real life, they just cannot see that it requires long-term security for people to feel they can let their paid employment go slow a bit in order to concentrate on voluntary work. It is THEIR economic policy which has destroyed certainty and destroyed long-term security, and so destroyed the sort of attitudes required for “Big Society” or its relative “Community politics” to work.

  • Interesting post Matthew H – you should have sent that in as an article by itself!

  • Echoing MBoy, that is a very perceptive post Matthew and you should be writing more on this!

  • Kevin Colwill 26th May '11 - 4:50pm

    A neat bit of fortune telling but I’m not quite buying it. I prefer the one where they divine the future by looking at sheep’s entrails…you know, hedge fund management.

    I suggest the modern Tories are more like the power driven Tories of old than ideology driven Thatcherites. I think it will be very hard for the Lib Dems to portray themselves as the source of all things nice and the Tories as nasty when it comes to social policy.

    If, by contrast, “Blue Labour” manifests itself as lowest common denominator populism I can’t see the Tories forsaking their home turf to join a Lid Dem encampment on the moral high ground. I suggest they’ll respond with a narrative of having to give ground on social issues to placate their coalition partners.

    It’s the economy stupid? It sure is! – But even if the soon to be redundant public sector workers are not re-deployed into vibrant private sector employment (shelf stacking at Tesco) the Tories will have some strong cards. They will continue to hold up Labour as incompetent on the economy and suggest populist measurers like (deeper) tax cuts were held back by the Lib Dems.

  • Kevin Colwill 26th May '11 - 5:24pm

    @ Matthew Huntback… I’ve spent a fair bit of time disagreeing with you on what should’ve, could’ve happened with the coalition, AV etc.

    On this “big picture” stuff, however, I find myself tipping my hat in almost total agreement.

    I’m sure economic liberals who are small c conservative across the broad range of social issues do feel disenfranchised under this coalition. I know that those of us on the economic left who also consider ourselves social liberals certainly feel disenfranchised.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th May '11 - 5:44pm


    Echoing MBoy, that is a very perceptive post Matthew and you should be writing more on this!

    It’s off the top of my head, I apologise that here as elsewhere I think faster than I can type (hence all the typoes), and having no time for in-depth consideration I don’t put in the ifs and buts I would if I were writing professionally. It’s all in primary colours because if, as I am, you’re dashing off this in your coffee break while supposed to be doing what you’re paid to do, there isn’t time for anything else.

    My views, unfortunately, are not the sort that will get me commissions to write from “liberal” Think Tanks paid by the wealthy to promote right-wing views and push the party of which I have been a member for over 30 years ever rightwards. I’d be very happy to write more if someone would pay me to do so, but I am already putting my paid career at risk because of the time I put into it, so please don’t encourage me to do more.

  • @ Matthew

    “In some ways it seems to me that the natural way for the coalition to develop would be for an avowedly Economic Liberal party to be formed from the Cameron Conservatives and the Orange Book Liberal Democrats, leaving a Social Liberal party on one side and a proper Conservative Party on the other side to do their own thing.”

    In other ways, it seems to some that the natural way for coalition critics to develop would be for an avowedly Social Democratic party to be formed from Labour’s Milliband Tendancy and Statist Liberal Democrats, leaving a classical Liberal party on one side and a proper Labour Party on the other side to do their own thing.

  • I have to admit Mr Nicholson that I do think this is a good article, but there are two rather glaring omissions.

    1) Why no mention of a snap election. To be honest, I suspect (and I may be wrong) that Cameron is in a stronger position than he appears. What worries the tories, of course, is losing such an election. Lib Dem assertiveness could make the Tories look ‘nasty.’ Or it could just make them look like they were decisive and it was the Lib Dems who didn’t really know what they were doing. It is interesting that the Conservatives seem to have been pretty skilled at this new politics.

    2) What about Libya? That should have been left well alone and may well blow up in Cameron’s face.

    I don’t think that the tories have much to worry about yet. But sooner or later the numbers need to start to move in the right direction, if not I can see problems.

  • The thing that made me laugh about the Tories’ recent polling was that they failed to see the irony of:

    1) Being worried that polling showed that they were still seen as a party of the rich;
    2) The polling, carried out with the express intention of influencing the party’s future policy direction, was paid for by tax-avoiding millionaire Tory supporter Lord Cashcroft.

    The Tories are, and will remain, a party that is owned by, and furthers the interests of, the rich. We should be hammering them mercilessly at the next election about this and putting forward policies like the mansion tax, that they simply can’t stomach.

  • While the social dimension of the left-right spectrum is important, the economic free-market versus state debate is far more so and crucial to explaining the limited traction of the Conservative message at the last election. While people realised that public finances needed sorting out, very few people want to give them carte blanche for even more market-based policies. The message to them from the electorate as far as privatisation is concerned is: thus far and no further. This has become especially evident in the debate over the NHS.

    What we, as Liberal Democrats, need to do, is to throw out some of the market-based ideological junk that has accumulated over the years and re-look at some of our own policies. A particularly ripe candidate for this is the railways. We need to start thinking the unthinkable on this one and start talking about public ownership. Our message on public versus private should be: whatever works. And if it doesn’t work, change it, rather than pretending everything is fine. It isn’t fine and everyone knows it.

  • David Wright 28th May '11 - 11:17am

    I take your point about having to do your paid job, but if you ever get some free time I hope you’ll turn that long comment into an article, which hopefully Lib Dem voice would publish.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '11 - 11:18am

    Stuart Wheatcroft

    My key critique of Matthew Huntbach’s analysis is that I think he uses two separate definitions of the left/right scale. He begins by explicitly defining it in terms of attitudes to current power structures. He then assumes that this is also what distinguishes so-called “left-wing Lib Dems” and “right-wing Lib Dems”. As someone who would probably be described by most as one of the latter I think that is quite wrong. There may be a legitimate difference in terms of the role of the state vs the role of the market, but there is nothing in my economic liberalism which is laissez-faire – indeed, I would characterize it as an attempt to disperse economic power more widely

    The ideology and way of viewing politics you are propounding has grown and become dominant over the past 30 years. It is like socialism was when I was young – the ideology every young trendy went for, and when its manifest failings became more obvious, the answer from the trendies was always that the problem was that the socialism that had been tried wasn’t socialist enough and we needed even more of it in an even more extreme form.

    Sorry, but when these economic liberal ideas were fairly fresh and being pushed by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, they were a breath of fresh air and worth thinking through and swept away the staleness of the domination of political thought by where you stood on socialism. But now THEY are what socialism was then, stale and their failings are obvious.

    I am well aware that “left-right” can be defined in many ways, I referred to that obliquely in what I wrote. That is why I mentiioned the “traditional sense”. I am not seeing it in terms of state v. market, but rather in terms of defnece of established power v. attack on it. The established power now is not the state, but the big cor[orations and the way they can play the fere market to theri favouyr and use that to push states around – how many times are we told about various economic issue that we can’t do that because it would lead to wealth (i.e. the big corporations) pulling out of the country? It is because they are now the dominant power that I regard those whose politics is essentially a defence of them and theiir power – and protest as you like, that is where you are – as “right wing”.

    Since the ideology you espouse has become dominant, we have seen a huge growth in inequality, with those at the bottom and now those in the middle becoming increasingly trapped by poverty, not in absolute terms, but in the way they have to jump to command to suit the powers that be – the big corporations. Yours is the liberalism of the rich.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '11 - 11:21am

    MIrror Man

    In other ways, it seems to some that the natural way for coalition critics to develop would be for an avowedly Social Democratic party to be formed from Labour’s Milliband Tendancy and Statist Liberal Democrats, leaving a classical Liberal party on one side and a proper Labour Party on the other side to do their own thing

    I was a member of the Liberal Party in the 1980s, when we had the alliance with the SDP. I was an opponent of that alliance and its consequence, and I voted against the merger. My politics has not changed much since those days. It is a sign of your narrow thinking, lazily adopting what is now stale orthodoxy, that you cannot see the difference between me and old-style SDP politics.

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