How do you solve a problem like Maria? That was the tagline, with a few variations, for many commentators during the Eastleigh campaign. But the Conservatives’ catastrophic defeat at Eastleigh is indicative of a number of problems facing the party, of which candidate Maria Hutchings was by far the least. The real question ought to be ‘How do you solve a problem like the Conservatives?’
Hutchings was not without blame for the failure in Eastleigh. Her campaign appeared to gravitate towards issues very few of the electorate cared about – particularly abortion and gay marriage – and the idiocy of announcing her opposition to the latter after the Commons had already voted on it is staggering. Whatever your opinion on gay marriage (and, popular or not, this blog regarded is as the right thing to do), the inescapable fact is your average voter simply didn’t care.
If this were confined to a candidate in a by-election, it wouldn’t be a problem. The trouble is, a muddled sense of priority goes to the heart of the Tory election machine. And it couldn’t possibly be at a worse time. In a development that has widened Nigel Farage’s grin even further, UKIP have now come second in no less than four by-elections during this Parliament (Barnsley, Rotherham, Middlesborough and Eastleigh). And this time within less than 2,000 votes.
The prognosis, to be frank, is dire. Although Nigel Farage said today only a third of the votes in Eastleigh were from former Tory supporters, in such a tight race, this alone will very easily have cost the Conservatives first place, never mind second. Worse still, it signals a now very serious split in the Right-of-centre vote that will cost Cameron many elections to come – including 2015.
Many have dismissed UKIP’s rise to their newfound status as the ‘protest party’ now the Lib Dems are in government. But only a fool would dismiss the destructive potential of a protest vote. As Nigel Farage has himself said, it is just such a Right-wing protest vote that destroyed the Progressive Conservatives in Canada (the clue is in the name – the party was very similar to the Cameroon Tories) for a decade – leaving them with just two Commons seats in 1993 and only ten more in 2000. The following is an extract from a Globe and Mail interview in December;
“I think the parallels with UKIP today and the Reform party in 1992 are quite eerie,” [Farage] said, adding that the Tories ignored the challenge and were wiped out. “Reform revolutionized politics in Canada in an incredibly positive way.”
In the long run, perhaps. The Canadian Right’s fortunes only turned round when, facing bankruptcy, the Progressive Conservatives grudgingly agreed to merge with the more Reform in 2003 – which was by that time called the Canadian Alliance and led by current prime minister Stephen Harper. Within three years, the new Conservative party of Canada had formed a minority government and, in 2011, won its first majority.
So how did they do this? Well, obviously healing a split in the Right-wing vote was a major factor, but it also brings us back to priorities. Reform was a highly conservative party, determined to win back the Right. But, as head of the Conservative party, Harper realised that after almost a century of Liberal government the party could not win by being seen as anti-immigrant and focused on socially conservative issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
They also polled. And polled. And polled. What emerged was that one of the electorate’s main concerns was the economy – big surprise there – and that immigrants’ concerns were not much different to those of more settled Canadians, including on illegal immigration. So taxes, public spending and illegal immigration went down. That’s a vote-winner.
But the biggest revelation was that voters voted as classical liberals, if not through conviction, then by proxy – and that polling which did not drill down far enough would be fatally misleading. As Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker co-wrote in ‘The Big Shift’ this year;
“Health care was the number-one priority for most voters [in a Nanos-IRRP poll], but also the issue they had the least confidence government could do anything to improve. In other words, people think that new government programs would be nice, but they don’t trust the government to deliver those programs. Which leads Tory supporters to conclude that government is the problem, not the solution. Which leads the Harper government to avoid grand new schemes.”
Anyone remember ‘The Big Society’? What happened to that? What was it even about? The fact this bizarre and intangible idea appeared to trump even deficit reduction in the 2010 campaign exposes a party leadership deeply out of touch with the electorate. And that’s not because they’re rich Etonians – it just means they haven’t done their homework.
It fell to the Liberal Democrats to push for the reductions in personal tax allowance which has reduced the tax burden on millions of working families and taken many out of tax altogether. Again, this is worrying, but too much of Cameroon policy both in the election and in government smacks of ‘grand new schemes’.
Top-down NHS reform, a completely new system of benefits, education turned on its head – not that these aren’t areas where reform is needed but the government is attempting too much on policies that simply aren’t vote-winners at the expense of those that are. Right now UKIP is mopping up that deficit. If they’re allowed to continue, the Right may be out of power for a generation.