Just a few months ago, poor local election results and the rise of UKIP left the Conservatives with a crisis of confidence. They were beset by pessimism, division and even leadership speculation. Today’s new mood of Conservative is a surprise, while it is Labour which is plagued by self-doubt and a lack of confidence in its leadership. Why?
Firstly, there is a new optimism about the economy. Growth is slightly higher than forecast and revised figures from the Office of National Statistics showed there was in fact no second ‘double dip’ recession under the Coalition.
Secondly, in consequence, the narrative of the Left (that ‘savage’ spending cuts have sucked out demand and plunged Britain back into recession) has been discredited. The Chancellor is more able to argue that the Coalition’s economic plan is working, that annual deficit is cut by a third, and the economy is recovering. The public seems to feel the same. A Guardian/ICM poll demonstrated that those who trust David Cameron and George Osborne on the economy has risen from 28 per cent to 40 per cent since June.
The Conservative economic message going into the next election is simple: the economy is on the right track, we should carry on with the plan that is working, and why put the economic recovery at risk by handing control of the economy back to Labour, who were responsible for the huge budget deficit in the first place?
For Labour, the economic recovery poses a challenge. The more dire predictions from some quarters of the Left about ‘austerity’ causing a new era of depression have not come true. And most worryingly for Labour, the public now trusts them less than the Conservatives on managing the economy and still blames them more than any other group for causing the UK’s economic problems in the first place.
The Labour Party is at odds with the public mood, opposing the government’s welfare and immigration reforms. Labour is unclear about which of the spending cuts, welfare reforms and immigration measures it will accept or reverse. Labour’s leader is now under public pressure from his side to provide a clearer message – but there is no consensus about what that message should be.
The Conservatives, mood is certainly better, yet many remain realistic, including the leadership. Firstly, despite the bad headlines for Labour, they retain their poll lead over the Conservatives, even if it is narrower. Second, precedent suggests it is difficult for an incumbent British party to increase its support while in power, least of all while the economy remains sluggish and there needs to be more cuts in public spending. Even Mrs Thatcher never again exceeded her 1979 43.9 per cent share of the vote. It gently slid to 42.4 per cent in 1983, but the electoral arithmetic worked in her favour. Her big new majority was because the British Left split. In 1987 the Conservative vote share slipped a little further and by 1992, John Major only got 41.9 per cent, and a small overall majority, which had been entirely eroded by the end of that Parliament. Tony Blair reunited the Left and saw the Right split, with the birth of James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party.
The Conservative Party failed to win a parliamentary majority in 2010 even when up against Gordon Brown, an unpopular prime minister leading a stale administration which oversaw Britain’s worst recession in decades. The effect of the Coalition has been to further unite the Left and to divide the Right, with UKIP now eating into core Conservative support. For Mr Cameron to win a parliamentary majority in 2015, after five years in power, is a huge challenge. It means converting people who did not vote Conservative last time. To get a majority, the Conservatives also need to win seats from their current coalition partners, the Lib Dems. The Eastleigh by-election suggests that dislodging Lib Dems from their local strongholds is harder than it looks.
In addition, the Conservative Party still struggles to gain support from ethnic minority voters, an increasing part of the British electorate. In the 2010 election, just 16 per cent of ethnic minority voters voted Conservative, compared to 37 per cent of white British voters. The Conservatives are also struggling with women voters. Historically, British women used to be more likely to vote Conservative than Labour. Curiously, that started to change under Mrs T. Now the opposite is true.
The big challenge for the Conservatives is to ensure that Conservative-minded Lib Dems vote Conservative next time, and to reunite the Party with its Eurosceptic hinterland. Another curiosity is that even most Lib Dem and Labour voters feel pretty negative about the EU. Indeed, ‘Euroscepticism’ is the one cause that could unite the Right and split the Left. It would put the Conservatives on more common ground with the majority of voters – and we are the only major party that would be inclined to do so. So it is odd that David Cameron has so often vacated this ground for the benefit of UKIP.
As it stands, Electoral Calculus, which claims to be ‘the most accurate pre-poll predictor at the last General Election in May 2010,’ predicts Labour will win the next election with an overall majority of 90 seats, helped by the Lib Dem’s decision to block the modernisation of constituency boundaries. Such a result is likely to see the two main parties get the smallest vote share for decades, on a despairingly low turnout. What would that say about the state of British politics?