In my survey of the changed political landscape after Britain’s General Election it is time to look at the unexpected winners of that election, the Conservatives. Just as a pall of doom hangs over the defeated Labour Party, and an even darker one over the Liberal Democrats, a bright glow surrounds the Conservatives, who now have an aura of invincibility, to judge by the commentary. We form our opinions in such ephemeral ways.
How well is this aura deserved? The Conservative majority is a narrow one. There is a huge gulf between them and the second-largest party, Labour, but if they lose thirty seats or so, a rainbow coalition of some sort could replace them, incorporating Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems. Perhaps sensing this, the Tory leader, David Cameron, is making a bid for working class voters, especially those in northern England, to consolidate his hold on what I have called Middle England. These are voters employed by the private sector who view left-wing rhetoric about extending the state with scepticism. This is backed up by the Chancellor George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” idea of restoring the fortunes of northern England through devolution of power and infrastructure investment. If this plan succeeds Labour could retreat yet further. Labour is badly shaken and is uncertain about what to do next; it can’t simply rely on mid-term government unpopularity to sweep itself forward: it badly needs a better narrative of its own. Meanwhile the Lib Dems have now lost the huge benefit they had of incumbency, and may be laid low for a very long time.
A further factor is that the Conservatives could redraw constituency boundaries to secure themselves another dozen or so seats. There was a big kerfuffle about this in the last parliament – when the scheme was also part of a plan to reduce the size of the House of Commons – as it still should be, according to the Conservative manifesto. But British politics may be more fluid than the politicos think. Labour was supposed to have an inbuilt advantage on current electoral boundaries – but if I have understood the psephologist John Curtice correctly, this vanished in this year’s election. Since blatant, American-style gerrymandering cannot be done here, it could well be that redrawing the boundaries will have little actual effect on the balance, or even an adverse on on the Conservatives.
Still, I think three things could upset the Tory bandwagon. The first, and most obvious, is Europe. Membership of the European Union (i.e. opposition to it) has been something of an obsession for many Tory activists for a generation. And yet the leadership clearly favours staying in the EU, fearing the uncertainties that would follow a withdrawal. The party has been close to tearing itself apart, and divisions contributed to its fallow period from 1992 (shortly after their victory in that year’s general election) until Mr Cameron assumed the leadership in 2005. Mr Cameron’s strategy is to lance the boil with an in-out referendum in this parliament. Will this referendum allow the party to bury the hatchet? Or will it cause civil war and either a Eurosceptic coup, or mass desertions of rank and file and even MPs? Mr Cameron’s victory gives him a lot of political capital in the party, and his views on Europe probably match those of Middle England very well. He may yet pull this off.
Secondly there is the economy. It was economic policy that did for John Major’s Tories, when he was forced into a humiliating U-turn in September 1992 on the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Divisions on Europe, and a revived Labour Party under Tony Blair simply finished things off. The British economy is not as strong as the government claims. It is too dependent on private sector debt and consumption, resulting in a substantial current account deficit. Moreover the standard econometric models, still used by almost everybody, including the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), do not account for many of the headwinds a modern developed economy now faces. The government has no answer to weak productivity, which underlies Britain’s mediocre economic performance and the failure of wages to advance. The fact is that economic performance is simply not in any government’s gift, and the outlook is cloudy.
Not that any economic crisis, like that of 1992 looms. A new banking crisis cannot be ruled out, but the country does not look as vulnerable as it was in 2008. But slow growth, and even relapse to recession, is distinctly possible. This matters because the government’s financial plans depend on relatively optimistic predictions provided by those econometric models. If this is not forthcoming the government will either have to cut spending more deeply, or raise taxes, or borrow more. Each of these would be particularly difficult for a government that has set so much store by its “long-term economic plan”. It will be particularly poisonous if the government is forced to raise one of the tax trio of income tax, National Insurance or VAT – there was an election promise to enact a law against raising these. But what if the alternative was to renege on its funding pledge to the NHS? Such an invidious choice could well confront the government. And, of course, this problem could come together with the European one (as it did for John Major). If the country votes to leave the EU, or if it looks as if this is a strong possibility, then the adverse effects on the economy, in the short term at least, could be severe.
The third threat to the Conservatives is more speculative. It is that the Tories are very old-politics when a sea-change could be coming. They favour minimal constitutional change – and such change as they do offer seems to be about handing more power to the executive. They look to older voters more than the young. They use classic old-style fear campaigns ruthlessly. This old, Westminster-centred politics was in bad odour before the election, and that the bad odour has gone away. Tory strength reflects their opponents’ weaknesses. Labour and the Lib Dems are just as tainted in electors’ eyes. Ukip’s foray into the politics old- fogeydom disqualifies them in the eyes of many. The Greens’ fantastical economics and obsession with abstract nouns (austerity, inequality, neoliberalism, etc) limits their appeal. Perhaps this general negativity reflects the national mood well, but the party should take heed of what happened to Labour in Scotland. The SNP’s success is not jut based on a nasty, narrow nationalism, though that is part of their formula. It also draws strength from an inclusive, bottom-up politics, that is not so heavily managed by spin-doctors and narrow calculations of electoral advantage. They have managed to ignite hope – and in the face of hope the old-politics world had no answer.
Can the politics of hope be ignited in England? It should not be ruled out. Perhaps a breakaway faction from Labour or the Conservatives can set it off it, much as the SDP did in 1981. Perhaps a future Labour leader will have the vision to be part of an electoral alliance including the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru, and based political reform, including a federal constitution and proportional representation at its heart. Such a brave and unexpected move could capture voters’ imagination, especially if the Tory reputation for sound economic management is wearing thin.
It may well take another crushing defeat for Labour before they are ready to embrace such radical thinking. Whether the SNP might play ball I have no notion. But these are strange political times and we must dare to think the unthinkable. There is no inevitability about another Conservative victory.