Make no mistake, May’s election result represents little more than a stand still for the Conservatives. The Party may desperately scramble for crumbs of comfort at the outcome ? true we now hold 197 seats but secured a mere 33.1% of the UK vote. Whichever way you look at it, this amounts to the Tories’ third worst defeat over the last century. Whilst the Conservatives in Parliament have already been revitalised and reinvigorated by the emergence of 54 new, energetic and enthusiastic MPs (two thirds of whom won seats not previously held by the Party) in many ways this reverse is far worse than those of either 1997 or 2001.
This time the Conservatives faced an unpopular and discredited Labour government whose vow that things can only get better eight long years ago has been exposed as hollow. Here in London, in recent years we have been lumbered with ever higher taxes and precious little to show for it as crime and disorder have soared alongside the record of failure in transport, health and education. The government has increasingly taken for granted London’s economic success with the Capital’s residents and businesses being regarded as convenient cash cows for the redistribution of money to its heartlands in Scotland and the North.
It came as no surprise to me that the best of the Conservatives’ modest advances came here in the Capital. The unpopular war in Iraq led to a plunge in Labour’s support in London, but the Tories did best where we had strong local candidates fighting the type of targeted campaigns more commonly associated with the Liberal Democrats. The swing in our favour was least pronounced in those North and East London marginals where the national party believed the immigration message would resonate loudest. By contrast where locally based Conservatives ran strongly on quality of life and cost of living issues in places such as Enfield Southgate, Putney, Wimbledon and Croydon Central we picked up seats which on the national swing should have remained in Labour hands.
Whilst Labour’s record did not go unchallenged we did not persuade the electorate of these failings because voters judged that we would not capable of providing better solutions. The Conservatives fought a campaign that was similar in approach to Labour’s. Call centres to reach swing voters, centrally produced messages, shying away from difficult issues, less flexibility to focus on local issues and a command and control operation. Campaign themes were driven by exhaustive, focus group led research with the unsurprising outcome that last gasp policy announcements were inevitably too similar to those offered by the government. Labour were better at playing the game; they won.
Above all we did not fight the election as a government in waiting. There was never any convincing or consistent narrative as to how a Conservative government would make life better for all our fellow Britons. We tended to craft policies designed to appeal to niche voters on immigration or pensions but governments have to offer a comprehensive policy package to represent all people. I believe that for each voter attracted by niche policies, there were several others who stared in disbelief at the Conservatives and wondered about the key issues that mattered to them. Everything seemed tactical. A Conservative sense of hope, vision or leadership for Britain was entirely lacking.
To be an effective government in waiting we now need a four year strategy of development using the full weight of resources available: parliamentarians, external experts, advisers, volunteers, and even non-supporters.
Those who believe that marginal change will do are being naïve and ignoring history. If the Conservatives are to return to office, we have to go back to the drawing board and re-assess both our policies and how we fight elections. The successful politicians of the last thirty years, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair did not just tinker with the policies of their party. They changed the approach of their party to fighting elections and reframed the political debate and political language. Their opponents then tried to fight their elections on the old terms and looked hopelessly out of date or on the same terms and found themselves regarded as ‘me-too’.
“One more heave” is not enough because we shall continue to fail.The Conservatives must transform themselves to become a party of the mainstream in tune with a broad section of Britain. The focus must move away from our own obsessions and we must articulate an optimistic and passionate vision and leadership for the future.
Before I was an MP I was a small businessman. Nowadays, to get the best out of individuals in the workplace, you have to give them responsibility, treat them as adults and use a judicious mix of leadership, inspiration and counsel. I believe that politics is the same.
We need to show leadership and harness all of the energies of supporters. If we can do that, then we have a fair chance of starting a process which could lead us back in power. If we cannot get several hundred thousand people involved and committed, then what makes us think we can ten million to mark the ballot paper?
For the third election running, the Conservatives have abjectly failed to understand how rapidly the country has changed. One of the most potent criticisms of modern politics is its short-termism. We should have fought this election on the basis of the challenges and opportunities facing the country and the world over the next 20 or 30 years rather than producing a managerial but uninspiring blueprint for action for the first day, week or month of a Tory government.
Real debate about the future of the nation did not occur in this election. Instead of our narrow focus on five two-word sound bites, we should have framed the debate on issues such as how we educate the one fifth of children who leave school functionally illiterate? How do we best deal with environmental issues? How are we going to operate and pay for healthcare in an increasingly consumerist and aging world? What can we offer the pensioners of today and the future? What is our place in the globalising international community where India and China are becoming economic, cultural and military superpowers? How do we re-invigorate interest in politics and civic society with hope and optimism? How do we portray ourselves as a Party at ease with the values, diversity and vibrancy of urban life? How do we represent the aspirational in our nation today and show how we appreciate the stresses and strains of the modern world? How do we articulate our message to all modern Britons, not just the highly successful? These issues ? the ones that the electorate either most care about or which will have most effect on them ? were ignored.
Only then can we frame a new debate about the direction of the country and provide fresh language and passion to articulate the issues with. This will require a serious amount of time and effort to be invested in the next four years ? starting immediately. The Conservatives did it in 1945 and 1975; the next stage of this thirty cycle needs to start now on the morrow of this devastating 2005 electoral set-back.
I suspect that hundreds of thousands of voters woke up on May 6 with a heavy heart. As in April 1992, when many reluctantly gave the Tories a fourth term, so on Election Day, they wanted to see the back of Tony Blair, or at least not to give him such an apparently clear mandate.
So in the depths of this severe electoral setback lie the seeds of Conservative opportunity. But will the Conservatives be able to rise to the challenge?
Certainly the task is made markedly more difficult by the continued advance of the Liberal Democrats. No-one should be fooled by the real impact of their superficially modest gains at this election. The Lib Dems may have only added ten seats to their net parliamentary tally. Nevertheless, unless the Tories can clawback the thirty or so seats they have lost to the Lib Dems over the past three elections they will find it very hard to win a clear majority. Moreover, by relegating the Conservatives to third place or worse in 96 English constituencies (45 in 2001) and 159 in Great Britain they have come near to achieving their real strategic goal at this election ? namely making a Conservative victory in 2009/2010 impossible.
I have long held the view that Labour’s electoral nemesis will come at the next election, and that it will be as massive a disaster for that party as 1997 was for mine. But it is now the Liberal Democrats who will be poised to capture scores of Labour seats in Britain’s major cities when that collapse comes because the Conservatives have virtually no presence in such areas. Even here in London they are now the main challenger to the government in 18 of Labour’s 44 seats, compared to just seven before the election.
The imminent struggle for the soul of the Conservative party is not ? as portrayed ? between traditionalists and modernisers. In truth it is better articulated for its future role as an independent political entity capable of returning to government.