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It could be worse (20 September 2008)

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It could be worse (20 September 2008)

Posted on 20 September 2008 by admin

However unpleasant it might be for Labour in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976

The conference season in 2008 will be the first conference season in 20 years in which the psychology of politicians and the media is based on the fairly confident expectation that the next government will be a Conservative one.

Labour comes to Manchester against an awful background, the worst for a party of government since the Conservatives convened in 1996. John Major’s government from 1992 to 1997 was a tedious procession of failed relaunch attempts and stabs at defining a narrative of what the Conservatives were for, and so far at least the Brown government seems to be following in these footsteps. The conference is a – slim – chance to start getting it right. However, sometimes in the past a good conference has set a troubled government on the path to recovery, as with the Conservatives in 1986 and Labour in 1969.

Brown government’s relationship with public opinion falls into three phases, and ministers fervently hope that the conference will start a fourth, of recovery. The first was the honeymoon phase, lasting over the summer of 2007 and rising to a peak in mid to late September, until it was abruptly ended by the “non-election” at the start of October. This led to a sharp switch in public opinion about Brown, and this (and a successful Tory conference) led to a revival in Conservative voting intention and Cameron’s personal ratings which took them back to where they had been for most of the late Blair period.

Public opinion stayed fairly stable through this second phase which lasted until the end of February 2008. The third phase, of acute crisis for Labour and a large Conservative poll lead, has been in place since March, although June saw the slump that had taken place from March until the local and Crewe elections in May, bottom out. The polls are still bad and Gordon Brown’s personal rating at abysmal levels. There was perhaps a slight change of mood during August, as might be expected, as the holiday season calmed politics following the fevered days of July, but September has seen another frightening downturn with the banking crisis and the Conservatives hitting new highs in the opinion polls.

Since March the Labour Party has been in fatalistic mood. This is, I think, partly a matter of political generations. Few among younger Labour people will have experience of a government facing deep unpopularity other than this, and the Major government which went down to overwhelming defeat in 1997. But before this, in 1990, 1985, 1981, 1977, 1971, 1968, 1963, 1957… governments dipped to alarmingly low levels of popularity and came back from them, sometimes by enough to win. In an article for Progress, I quote a comment from Richard Crossman, a minister in Wilson’s government, reflecting on the apparent hopelessness of Labour’s position in December 1968. Yet only a year and a half later, the party was the favourite to win a general election.

The fatalism that has gripped Labour is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it generates the “every person for themselves” attitude – saving one’s personal position – that undermines party unity and in turn creates worse problems. The best hope for the party is to make a proper decision about whether or not to get rid of its leader, and stick to it. There will also have to be a turnaround at least in economic expectations – the collapse in confidence in people’s thinking about future economic conditions took Labour down to its current low ebb. Labour also needs a tough, brutal campaign modelled on the Conservatives’ in 1992 attacking an inexperienced and risky opposition party that has arguably not changed enough. But the party currently lacks the money, the self-confidence and the receptive ear from the public to carry it off, and needs to start pulling itself together.

Although a leadership coup is possible it is unlikely. More likely is that a consensus will start to form on whether Brown should stay, go later, or be given an ultimatum to shape up. Although there need not be action at Manchester, the strategic decision needs to be contemplated and no doubt it will. Before the conference, it seems that an ultimatum is the most likely route, with a showdown in spring 2009 if there has been no improvement by then in the polls. But moods can change, and movements form, rapidly at conference – one only has to return to Labour’s growing sense of euphoria at last year’s gathering in Bournemouth to demonstrate that.

Labour will also have to hope for not too many “noises off” so that the desired message comes across. The Lib Dems in Bournemouth lost out on coverage because of the more dramatic developments in the financial markets. The last thing Labour needs is for a re-run of 1976, when a run on the pound caused Chancellor Denis Healey to turn back at Heathrow Airport and return to Labour conference and try to calm the financial markets. Healey was heckled, delegates called upon him to resign, and the government had to go to the IMF anyway. Back in those days, Labour conferences were brutal festivals of blood sports as far-left delegates openly baited and denounced their own government’s ministers and the language of treachery was on everyone’s lips. However unpleasant it might be in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/20/labour.labourconference


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The message from Henley is clear: the Tories are on the march (27 June 2008)

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The message from Henley is clear: the Tories are on the march (27 June 2008)

Posted on 27 June 2008 by admin

Labour’s trouncing in Oxfordshire, and the less-reported loss in Blackpool, is a definite indication of a Conservative future

Henley was never going to be a good result for Labour, but the outcome was horrific beyond imagination. The lost deposit was perhaps predictable, but the embarrassment of coming behind the Greens was not, and the abject humiliation of limping in behind the BNP in this affluent home counties seat was an entirely unexpected blow. At least, at 3.1%, Labour’s share of the vote in Henley was not the worst ever – the Isle of Wight (1983), Newbury (1993) and Winchester (1997) have all seen Labour sink lower.

In previous byelections in safe Conservative seats there has often been a swing to the Liberal Democrats. In 2006, Bromley & Chislehurst came within 633 votes of an astonishing upset, with a 14% swing to the Lib Dems, and in 2000 the Tories lost Romsey. One might have expected a significant swing to the Lib Dems in Henley and a reduced Conservative majority, but there was actually a small net swing from Lib Dem to Conservative. The turnout was relatively high for a safe seat by-election at 50% (10 points higher than in Bromley). The pro-Tory swing and robust turnout are, if anything, more remarkable and worrying for Labour than the crash in the party’s own vote. It shows that the Conservative vote is more solid and committed than it has been for many years. This should worry Labour greatly, and also send a shiver of alarm through the many vulnerable Lib Dem MPs in the south of England.

There was another less conspicuous byelection last night, in the Park ward of Blackpool, where the Conservatives scored a gain from Labour on a big swing even since the May 2007 elections when Labour polled very poorly in the town. This ward forms part of the marginal Blackpool North and Cleveleys seat, number 80 on the Conservative target list, and is generally one of Labour’s better areas of the constituency. Yesterday’s byelection confirmed the message of Henley that the Tories are on the march.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/27/henley.conservatives

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A mountain to climb (29 September 2007)

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A mountain to climb (29 September 2007)

Posted on 29 September 2007 by admin

Conservatives 07: If they are to stand any chance of success, the Tories must recapture the Cameron Highlands.

Labour has had a “Brown bounce”, but another feature of the electoral scene this summer has been the descent from what might be called the Cameron Highlands (after a resort area in Malaysia – a place with considerably more to commend it to the visitor than Blackpool).

As a feature of the political landscape, the Cameron Highlands were the period between December 2005 and June 2007 when David Cameron was leader of the opposition to Tony Blair.

During this period, the Conservatives were scoring consistently around 38%-39% in voting intention in opinion polls and, equally steadily, leading Labour in voting intention and the head-to-head contrast of party leaders.

Although this sort of poll rating was less than ecstatic approval from the public, and not enough to win outright, it was a marked contrast with recent Conservative history.

Other than in some particularly bleak periods of John Major’s last government and the Blair honeymoon, in which the party’s ratings fell into the twenties, the Conservatives have flatlined in the polls since 1993, never escaping the prison of 31%-34% support except during the briefest of blips.

However, since Gordon Brown became prime minister, the Conservative rating has fallen back once more to the 33%-34% range. The variations in Labour’s lead recorded in recent opinion polls are mostly to do with how the non-Conservative two-thirds of the country is saying it will divide its favours, with the highest Labour leads being generated by unrealistically low levels of Lib Dem support.

The Conservatives’ ejection from the Highlands was in part a result of a strategic error, namely underestimating Gordon Brown. The Conservatives started to believe their own propaganda about Brown and extrapolate their poor personal relationships with him to imagine that the electorate would feel the same way on exposure to him.

Some of them started to expect a boring, aggressive, mechanical, far-left Brown who would be a gift to the opposition. They were not ready for the reality.

Brown’s poor showing against Cameron in hypothetical match-up polls before June was also given too much importance, because the change of prime minister – entirely predictably – was not the same as the anticipation, and the change itself caused the electorate to re-evaluate Brown in a new context.

This was the worst strategic error. But there has also been muddle about squaring the circle between being the modernising “heir to Blair” and aiming to capitalise on public disregard for Blair’s style of leadership.

Worryingly, some pre-Highlands polling phenomena have re-emerged, including the perception that the Conservatives are divided, not under Cameron’s control and too far to the right compared with the public.

The issue of Cameron not being seen as being “in charge of his party” is serious because public opinion places the Labour party much closer to the centre than the Conservatives. And while there is a belief that Cameron is moderate, he needs to be seen as fully in charge before this leads people to vote for his party.

Cameron’s personal ratings have also sagged alarmingly since June. The public perception of the Tories as a divided rabble, current since 1992, faded during Michael Howard’s leadership during 2004 and seemingly shaken off in 2006, is back.

Strategically, the Conservatives need to recapture the Cameron Highlands if they are to stand a chance of beating Brown. They can hope that conference publicity will help – they clawed back a little ground in August but disappeared from view as Brown and Labour have dominated the media in September.

To an extent, all publicity is good publicity, but there are serious dangers at Blackpool. Stories of splits and indiscipline will feed the reviving perception of the party as being incompetent. The Highlands were captured in the first place by Cameron’s fresh, progressive approach, but the party seems to be distancing itself from some of the environmental ideas it has been considering and going for the more traditional Tory fare at Blackpool of immigration and crime. Labour will no doubt point to a “lurch to the right”.

Going back to basics – if this phrase has yet been rehabilitated in Conservative discourse – may shore up the 33%-34% vote but leaves a lot of political territory in Labour’s hands, as in 2001 when the Tories aimed the campaign at their core vote and lost badly.

There is no alternative – to quote another resonant phrase – to Cameron and modernisation if they are serious about recovering from their last three dismal election performances.

To win support, the newer messages need to be presented in a balanced way with traditional Conservative thinking, in a way that tells a story about what a Conservative government would be like. The danger is that the mixture looks like an incoherent and opportunistic response to short-term pressures.

Tactically, the Conservatives have some advantages. The party’s organisation is in better condition than it has been for years, and although it has failed to attract large numbers of new members, it has once again managed to receive significant donations.

The Conservatives are now probably better than Labour at advanced electioneering, such as compiling information about the electors and funding activity in the marginal seats.

But the Conservatives cannot win an election with this alone. They need a good conference to remind the electorate why they greeted Cameron so warmly in 2005. And – if they can – they need to find a clear, resonant way of telling people why they should vote for his party. At the very least, they need to do well enough to deter Gordon Brown from calling an election.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/29/amountaintoclimb

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