Magazine article The Spectator

A Genuine Liberal: Just What the Tories Need

Magazine article The Spectator

A Genuine Liberal: Just What the Tories Need

Article excerpt

In the 1960s Harold Wilson sought to make Labour the natural party of government. Tony Blair seems to have succeeded in doing so. The Conservatives have now been in opposition for eight years, their longest period out of government since the days of Asquith and Lloyd George before 1914. Never before, during the period of mass suffrage, have they lost three consecutive general elections. Moreover, at no stage since 1997 have they appeared credible as a potential party of government. That is bad, not only for the Conservatives but also for the country. Governments, under our constitution, even though elected on a minority of the popular vote, enjoy almost untrammelled power.

Without an effective opposition, that power will not be properly scrutinised.

Labour, too, was out of office for a whole political era, from 1979 to 1997. But, after eight years in opposition, it had already begun, however hesitantly, the process of modernisation under Neil Kinnock, the bridge between Old and New Labour.

Moreover Labour was ahead in the opinion polls for much of the period between general elections. The Conservatives, by contrast, have been behind Labour in the opinion polls for most of the past eight years. Indeed, never since Gallup first began polling in Britain in 1937 has one party -- Labour -- held a lead for so long a period -- since 1992 -- for most of which it has been in government. The Conservatives have not even begun the process of modernisation. Instead, they seem to be engaged in a permanent quarrel with the British people. In that quarrel there can be only one victor, and it will not be the Conservative party.

To understand the Tory problem, we have to go back to 1992 when John Major's government was forced to depart, permanently as it turned out, from the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system. The fall-out from that event -- recession, bankruptcies and negative equity -- destroyed the Conservatives' reputation for economic competence, a crucial part of the party's appeal during its years of success in the 1950s and the 1980s. At the same time, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were getting rid of the detritus of Old Labour, beginning with Clause 4, and fashioning a new economic policy which did not depend upon co-operation from the trade unions, and which offered prudent stewardship. One of Tony Blair's main accomplishments has been to persuade voters that Labour has become an effective manager of the economy. It is now, paradoxically, Labour which is seen as the party of sound economic management, while the Tories are regarded as a party which could put the economy at risk.

'The Tories, ' Tony Blair said during the recent election campaign, 'used to run on the economy. Now they just run away from it.' But the Tory crisis is not one of policy only.

It is also a crisis of identity. They have lost support both among graduates and among the young. Such support as they have gained since 1997 has come mainly from the over-65s and from the geographically and socially immobile. Significantly, the three seats which the Conservatives gained in 2001 -- Castle Point, Romford and Upminster -- contained a lower than average percentage of graduates and members of ethnic minorities, and a higher than average percentage of older votes. In 2001 there were actually swings away from the Tories from their already low 1997 level among the professional and managerial classes, 25-34-year-olds and the ethnic minorities.

The 2005 election, although it led to a few more Tory gains, did little to reverse these trends; and among university students the Conservatives are now the third party, behind even the Liberal Democrats. The party has actually lost ground since 1997 in constituencies where the proportion of university graduates is above average. It is a myth, therefore, to believe that the Conservatives can regain power simply by mobilising their existing voting base. The current Tory voting profile is that of an unelectable party. …

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