Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Conservatives Smell the Coffee

I've been fascinated all week by the Tory Party Conference: it's always enjoyable to see the raw sort of democracy in action that takes place (or appears to take place) when the Tories elect a new leader. Seriously: because they're not being too rude to each other they get on with debating issues that they wouldn't dare raise in a parliamentary campaign.

Anyway, Simon Kuper had a very interesting analysis in last Saturday's FT, discussing the state of the party. The basic point of the article is, unsurprisingly, that the Tories have become something of an electoral irrelevance for many of the people they should be attracting (and must attract if they are to be in government ever again). This was explained succinctly to Kuper in a meeting with Nicholas Boles:
No more past; no more opportunism; a critic might say that doesn’t leave the Tories with much. They now need a vision of Britain’s future: their own version of “forward not back”.

Amid the chaos of his desk, Boles has a flipchart showing what is required. His first chart shows the party losing votes among social classes ABC1: professionals, managers, clerks and administrators. In the 1970s the party had a nearly 40-percentage-point lead over Labour among this group. Even as late as 1992, the Tories were still the party of aspiration: Blair once said he knew that year’s election was lost when he met a man out washing his car, who said he’d always voted Labour, but would vote Tory now he had his own business. This May, Boles’s chart shows, the Tory lead over Labour among ABC1 voters was 1 percentage point. “This is our core vote,” he notes. “The Thatcher years were all about blowing away the wets and toffs while self-made people came up. Right now the Tory party represents aspiration only to someone who wants to become a blazer-wearing college-scarved Alan B’stard sort of person, and nobody normal aspires to that.”

Boles flips the page. The next chart shows the party’s support rising among C2s: the skilled working classes, taxi drivers for instance, who like Tory positions on immigrants and crime. Influential Tories are uneasy about attracting these people: as one of them told me, “Our core vote will never be people who own pit bull terriers.”

Then Boles flips the page to the punchline: a graph with a rising line crossing a falling one. It shows the number of ABC1s going up, while C2s die out. The Tories are fishing in a shrinking pool. The change in their voting base evokes Bush’s Republicans: losing the traditional elite, and winning in return poor voters in redneck states who vote Republican against their own economic interests. It’s just that in America, the “faith, flag and family” pitch works better than in Britain.
I was also struck by this comment on the last election. Michael Ashcroft has published a report entitled 'Wake Up and Smell the Coffee' (introduction here) based on a series of polls that
tracked changes in opinions over several months. These found that although people didn’t like immigration, they weren’t obsessed with it. In the last ICM poll before the election, only nine per cent of voters named it as the key issue. In any case, they didn’t believe politicians could do much about it. Those most worried about immigrants - the working classes and the poorest members of society - were also least likely to vote Tory.

Most Tories now realise that they fought the campaign on a marginal issue.
What the new leader has to do is not easy. But, as Kuper points out, it is essential. Just as with voters, the lives of political parties do come to an end.

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