After the Deluge

Article excerpt

William Hague must look to Disraeli to find out how to revive his battered party

It is 125 years, almost to the day, since Disraeli, in his Crystal Palace speech, spelt out his plans to appeal to a dramatically changing electorate, doubled in size by franchise reform. The creation of a mass membership and a professional organisation were among his achievements; William Hague needs to match that radicalism.

Although fierce tides, such as the destruction of Conservative Britain on 1 May, can ebb quickly, as did the Liberal landslide of 1906 and Labour's triumph in 1945, history offers only limited comfort to the Tories. Faith in a natural recovery is of a piece with imagining that governments can't lose elections when the economy is doing well.

The causes of the Tories' May Day debacle are clear: public boredom, sleaze, disunity, distrust of the party's ability to manage the economy and a powerful opposition led by Tony Blair proved a deadly combination.

Tories should not assume that they will be able to win back voters' confidence as easily as they have done in the past. The real danger of new Labour is that it has captured the Conservatives' secret weapon: adaptability. Most of the keys to power are now out of the Tories' hands. Labour needs only to stay united, burnish Blair's image, maintain the "bond of trust" on competence and economic management, and come up with fresh ideas to ward off the "time for a change" factor. The flood of intellectuals into the government should keep bright ideas sparking well into the next decade.

The key to past Tory revivals has been the vote of liberal Britain. On three occasions (1924, 1951 and 1970) the collapse of the Liberal vote helped the Tories back into power. Twice (1918 and 1931) there were alliances with the centre. The Tories won by sweeping up the anti-Labour vote. If the electoral system is changed, the Conservatives will need to gather upwards of 48 per cent to win outright, instead of the 42 per cent that sufficed in the 1980s, or else make themselves palatable to other parties. Both targets will require serious reconstruction of the party's base.

International comparisons also lend no comfort to the Tories. True, this month's French election saw a dramatic swing to the left. But the right ran a deeply unpopular government and then made desperate blunders during the election campaign. France may have "the stupidest right in Europe" but nobody would make an equivalent claim about the British left under Blair. International experience also suggests that recovery from a trouncing is a long and painful process. The Canadian Tories took only faltering steps to recovery this year from their wipe-out in 1993, despite having a strong leader. The Australian right lost five elections in a row, from 1983 to 1996.

Electorates in the 1990s are not as volatile nor, therefore, as likely to turn against Labour as some Conservatives would like to believe. In countries that have seen great volatility, it is usually due to one of three factors. In new democracies, such as Poland, the first elections have seen instability. The Italian Christian Democrats, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party and the Democrats in the US Congress were all cases where a long-established governing party suddenly collapsed. In Canada, New Zealand and Belgium, protest parties sprang up and destabilised the party system.

The Conservatives therefore need to take radical action on their own behalf, not simply wait for the government to make mistakes. They need, as the Conservative historian John Ramsden says, "something pretty fundamental, certainly comparable to what happened after 1945", to be in a position to have a strong chance of winning in 2007, let alone 2002. …