The UK political scene ahead of the Eastleigh by-election

Posted by Tim Congdon in News Archive | 0 comments

Disillusionment with politics – or at any rate with the current political elite – is rife in Britain at present. The UK Independence Party has made astonishing gains in the last three years. In the 2010 general election it received about 3% of  the  vote,  but  opinion  polls  and  canvassing  returns  show  that  in  the Eastleigh by-election (result due on Thursday, 28th February) it should achieve more than 15% of the vote and its share may even approach 25%.

British politics is in flux. In the following remarks, which are based on an e- mail distributed to UKIP supporters* earlier today, I analyse prime minister Cameron’s disastrous strategy to ‘modernise’ and ‘rebrand’ the Conservative Party.   The result of that strategy has been to alienate support from an important Conservative constituency, namely the Cs and Ds (the lower middle class and working class) who – when they do not vote Labour – are often particularly ‘right-wing’ in their  political orientation. (The  ‘patriotic working class’, etc.) The Cameron strategy has been responsible for upsetting many true conservatives who dislike/deplore the prime minister’s politically-correct agenda on social issues.

My surmise are that

i. the Conservatives will lose heavily in the 2015 general election and then split, with the majority of the party moving in favour of withdrawal from the EU, and

ii. the polarisation in British politics in the next few years will be less on class lines and increasingly on the European issue

* I was runner-up in the 2010 UKIP leadership election and am therefore biased. I am of course not going to hide this.

Cameron’s strategy to ‘modernise’ the Conservative Party

David Cameron has had a clear electoral strategy since he became leader of the Conservative Party in autumn 2005. The aim has been to persuade middle-ground Liberal Democrats to switch to the Conservatives by jettisoning the Conservatives’ supposed image of ‘nastiness’ (i.e., of so-called ‘right-wing’ views on social issues). The Conservatives were to be ‘modernised’, and the resulting ‘rebranding’ would make them appear a nicer bunch of people, and more civilized and attractive party. Like Tony Blair, Cameron saw – and continues to see – the word ‘modern’ as expressing much that is good and desirable, and ‘modernisation’ as something to be pursued. The deliberate intention was to drop the Thatcherite element in contemporary Conservatism, with its allegedly harsh emphasis on unbridled individualism, private enterprise and a smaller state. Thatcher had said, following a theme in some of Hayek’s writings, that ‘there is no such thing as society’, since ultimately every society can be decomposed into particular people and their families. By contrast, Cameron in a 2005 article for The Spectator said that he was in favour of ‘social action zones’ (whatever they might be) and that his larger political ideal was ‘the Big Society’. The three Conservative losses in the general elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005 were attributed by Cameron and his associates to their party’s continued adherence to too much ‘right-wing Thatcherism’.

An obvious interpretation of the Eastleigh by-election is that Cameron’s strategy has failed. Indeed, it has been a catastrophe for the Conservative Party. Eastleigh became a LibDem stronghold in the opening years of the 21st century, but before that it was a standard Conservative seat of the safe, Home Counties variety. Opinion polls nationally show that the LibDems are deeply unpopular, but in Eastleigh they throughout the by-election campaign battled as the favourites. Polls have steadily given them  30%  or  more  of  the  vote.  Meanwhile  the  Conservatives  have  lost  ground  to  the  UK Independence Party. Opinion surveys show that UKIP does particularly well in the C and D groups in the population, i.e., those seen to be in lower middle class ‘and below’. It is these groups that have no truck with Cameron’s ‘modernisation’ (i.e., in reality, the endorsement of ‘political correctness’) and no interest in the rebranding exercise. (What is ‘political correctness? I think, in essence, it is the notion  that  ‘society’  [really  ‘the  state’]  should  deliver  equality  of  outcomes  between  people, regardless of their educational attainments, race, citizenship, creed, gender and sexual preferences, and even of how hard they hard they work, how much they save and so on.)

Cameron’s strategy has alienated C and D votes

The emerging pattern is extraordinary, in that it has been totally unexpected. As far as I am aware, UKIP’s surge had not been foreseen by any of the leading political commentators or any member of the party leaderships. The three ‘main’/old parties (i.e., the Conservatives, Labour and LibDems) have increasingly converged on a wishy-washy political correctness which appeals to the A and B groups in the population, particularly – for example – to teachers, civil servants and many opinion-formers in the media. But the C and D groups have been upset by the application of political correctness in practice. This may seem paradoxical, since surely ‘the lower social groups’ ought to be enthusiastic about greater equality of outcomes. That is not how it has turned out.

The C and D groups have been the most affected by competition from immigrant workers in the labour market and by the increasing prominence of Muslim forms of worship. They also often see at first hand how the welfare state has been corrupted. Instead of promoting ‘social justice’, the UK’s welfare arrangements frequently offend against basic principles of ‘natural justice’ by giving too much to the undeserving. At any rate, UKIP has made large inroads into the votes from the C and D groups, and it has made these inroads from all of the three ‘main’/old parties. Some people have noticed that UKIP support does not seem to be closely connected with EU membership, since it is related to concern about identity and immigration. However, UKIP supporters are right to see EU integration as a major force behind the implementation of the political-correctness agenda.

The failure of the Cameron strategy

So Cameron’s ‘modernisation’ was meant to persuade the media and its key opinion-formers that the Conservatives are a party of nice people who are not particularly Thatcherite. Perhaps it has achieved that. But the result has been to alienate millions of former and/or potential Conservative voters in the C and D groups, many of whom have switched to UKIP. The Eastleigh by-election demonstrates that the planned electoral benefits of the Cameron strategy, in terms of gaining LibDem votes, are also uncertain. The UK political situation is remarkably fluid at present. But I don’t see how – with Cameron as prime minister – the Conservatives can recover support from the C and D groups in the next two years. Cameron is too obviously a member of an elite that has become remote from the daily lives of most people.

The majority of voters say that they care more about health and education than they worry about the EU. But the Conservatives have nothing particular to offer on health compared with the other two main parties, while Gove’s radical initiatives in education are too new for any definite verdict yet. One of Cameron’s blunders has been to think that emphasis on health and education would be good salesmanship. In fact, no party has a ‘unique selling point’ in these areas. By contrast, UKIP has a very strong heart-and-soul USP in its rejection of EU membership.  Voters do see – correctly – that EU membership is against the UK’s economic interests. The European election in 2014 and the general election in 2015 will be fascinating political theatre. My expectation is that

  1. the Conservatives will do badly, with the loss of votes to UKIP being generally regarded as the main reason (even though UKIP will in fact also be taking votes from Labour and the LibDems), and
  2. the Conservatives will then split, with a majority of the party adopting withdrawal from the EU as a main policy, indeed as possibly their distinctive policy, and a rump trying to differentiate themselves (unavailingly) from Labour and the LibDem

I have no idea what will happen after that. It would however be crazy for a Labour government elected in 2015 to ditch altogether the idea of an In/Out referendum.

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