Britain’s Liberal Democrats will do much better in the country’s General Election on 7 May than most people expect. That’s because expectations are so low. The party is fighting hard in 50-60 marginal seats where they have a base to work with, and that intensive ground war is paying dividends, as shown in last week’s constituency polls published by the Ashcroft organisation. But outside those seats the party’s predicament is dire. The party used to routinely pick up 10-15% across the country, and lost few if any election deposits (which require 5% of the vote). Now its national poll rating seems stuck at about 8% and in many seats a lost deposit looks very likely. The party is considered to be such an irrelevance that few people noticed a feisty performance by their leader Nick Clegg in last week’s seven-way leaders’ debate. What has happened?
The answer is simple: coalition with Britain’s Conservative Party. The party has learnt the hard way what many had suspected beforehand. The Conservative brand is so toxic to so many people in the UK that another party doing a deal with it, or a least a deal where the Conservatives play the lead role, suffers a kiss of death. Those who don’t consider the Tories toxic (30-40% of the electorate) vote for the party; nobody else will touch any party that deals with it. This lesson has been marked well by Britain’s other centre and left of centre parties: the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Greens. Even for the far-right Ukip the issue is a delicate one. They have been fishing for votes enthusiastically amongst Conservative inclined voters. But Labour inclined working class and lower middle class votes are strategically important to them. These voters do not have the sort of progressive, liberal attitudes that many on the left assume. And yet for them the Tory brand is as toxic as for anybody else.
And this toxicity is vital to understanding how politics will play after the election. The Conservatives may well win a plurality of seats, but well short of a majority. But it will be more than difficult for them to do deals to allow them to form a government. The SNP (who might well win big in Scotland), Plaid Cymru and the Greens (though they are only likely to have a single MP) will not touch them – even to abstain. Ukip and the Lib Dems will be more than wary. The Lib Dems stand open to the possibility, but will surely demand too high a price. A grand coalition with Labour, in spite of my speculation last year, would destroy that party (they tried it with painful consequences in the 1930s) absent a state of war. Only Ulster Unionists stand ready to deal, at the cost of taking the province’s politics forward.
Labour, on the other hand, are in a much stronger position. An outright coalition with this most tribal of parties would be a tall order for any party. But some kind of lesser deal involving conditional support or abstention is feasible for all the other parties, apart from Ukip – including the Conservatives, if that suited their purposes (a referendum on Europe, perhaps). That makes a Labour led government much the most likely outcome of this election, although it might take some time to come together.
It’s worth pondering how this situation has come about. The Tory brand has always been toxic to many working-class voters, based on old-fashioned class loyalties. The party’s reluctance to embrace non-white immigration has extended this toxicity to most ethnic minority communities, even in the middle-classes. But class feeling is in slow decline. The picture amongst ethnic minorities is more complex, but the Conservatives have moved on from their racist attitudes for the most part. These forces should be declining, but the problem for the Tories is not.
A further problem arises from the distribution of the party’s votes. It is becoming more concentrated in relatively prosperous areas, especially in the south-east of England. Under Britain’s single member constituency electoral system this reduces the number of seats they can win. But this does not explain the party’s toxicity, except to give a regional slant to the party’s image. It is why the party’s toxicity is more of a problem for it.
I suspect developments in the economy have a lot to do with it. The Conservatives are the party of economic winners. Not so long ago upward mobility was a more general expectation. So even if the winners were in a minority, many more people would aspire to do well, and so associate with the party. The message of self-reliance and making good through your own efforts, without the state and taxes getting in the way, appealed to many working class and lower middle class voters. Margaret Thatcher (and her predecessor Ted Heath) were from this upwardly mobile background, and successfully maintained a broad class appeal. But now upward mobility seems blocked for many people. Those with less good education, poorer social networks or living in the wrong places saw diminished possibilities for betterment. Indeed, steady industrial era jobs were replaced by poorer quality service ones. There is a strong sense of us-and-them with little mobility between them (or more precisely little upward mobility and the constant risk of downward mobility). And the Tories are often blamed for making things worse – as much de-industrialisation occurred on Mrs Thatcher’s watch. Tory appeals to self-reliance now look like heartlessness – even amongst the better off.
Amongst the Tories themselves there seems to be a pernicious negative feedback loop. The party attracts people that can only be described as nasty. The old consensual “one-nation” Toryism is long dead, and even Mrs Thatcher’s habitual caution too. There is also a wholly unbalanced obsession with the European Union, seen as the source of all the country’s ills. David Cameron, who is not part of this nasty tendency, struggles to contain these toxic types. It is interesting to speculate what might have become of the party had it won outright in 2010 and governed alone. I suspect that the party would be even more toxic that now.
People on the left might chuckle at the prospect of the Tories becoming so toxic that they are likely to be banished from power. And yet they represent a third of the electorate. And much of what is not Tory is a stale, backward looking muddle with little idea of how to take the country forward beyond extending bureaucratic blather to all corners of life. The country would be better governed if Tories were engaged in the political dialogue, rather than treated as toxic pariahs. But they largely have themselves to blame.