To hear some people talk you’d think that Andy Coulson, by signing on as David Cameron’s Head of Communications back in mid-2007 had single-handedly saved the Tory Party from having to face a snap election which it looked sure to lose. Between then and his resignation in the face of persistent public interest in his role in the phone-hacking scandal engulfing his former employer, the News of the World, he was apparently the only man standing between a leadership supposedly incapable of understanding how the other half lives and an electorate of inverted snobs. There maybe a grain of truth in all this – Coulson undoubtedly sharpened up the media operations of a Party not exactly renowned for looking or sounding much like the country it aims to govern. But it seriously overstates how much social representativeness and presentational tactics matter to political success. Far more important is getting the fundamental strategy right. This has long been David Cameron’s strongpoint. Whether, however, it remains so is worth debating.
When Cameron assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party at the end of 2005 it had done little or nothing to overcome the negative perceptions that had seen it lose three elections on the trot. Those perceptions had begun to build up even before 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her colleagues. For fifteen years, however, the Party remained wedded to the belief that it had somehow won‘the battle of ideas’ and therefore didn’t really need to change its tune. This might not have mattered had Labour not worked so hard to pull itself back into the centre-ground and then found itself a credible leader: John Major, after all, was able, after taking over from Thatcher, to win the 1992 election pretty convincingly – at least in terms of vote share if not parliamentary seats. But once Tony Blair took over, and was able to persuade voters that he could deliver both a dynamic economy and a commitment to renewing Britain’s crumbling health and education systems, the Tories were in deep trouble. Ideologically incapable of appreciating just how far to the right they were stranded – and individually and institutionally incapable of doing much about it even if they had ‘got it’ – a succession of Conservative leaders (Hague, Duncan Smith, and Howard) virtually gave up trying to fight Labour on electorally-crucial issues like the economy and public services. Instead, they tried (spurred on by their so-called friends in Britain’s highly partisan print media) to makethe most of issues like law and order, Europe, and immigration, where they could argue they were more in tune with public opinion.
Cameron’s insight was to realise that Conservative leads in these areas were virtually guaranteed and that ‘banging on’ about them not only added little to overall levels of support for the Party but actually had a negative impact, reinforcing impressions – especially among liberal middle class voters – that the Tories were narrow-minded, mean-spirited, out of date and out of touch. He also understood that the Party, at least in opposition, had to ‘concede and move on’ when it came to health and education. The same desire to signal a return to the centre-ground even extended to the economy – at least until the global downturn messed up everyone’s calculations. Cameron, having done a great deal to ‘decontaminate’ the Conservative brand by stressing his commitment to the NHS, his relaxed attitudes on many social issues, and his concern for the environment – and having slowly and carefully brought back into the mix hardy perennials like crime, immigration and taxation – then took the risky decision to take a more hawkish line on the deficit. The gamble that voters would appreciate a little more honesty about the ‘austerity’ needed to balance the books wasn’t wholly misplaced, but nor did it pay off as handsomely as he had hoped. Labour may have been incapable of winning the election in 2010, especially having decided to stick with Gordon Brown. But it could still frighten enough voters about Tory cuts to prevent Cameron making it back into Downing Street without the assistance of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.
Once in power, however, Cameron has decided to play an even riskier game, so much so that it’s no longer clear whether his strategic sense remains as keen as it once was. The cuts announced since the formation of the coalition may be an economic gamble – testament to the fact that Conservatives remain as convinced now as they ever were that shrinking the state will energise the economy. But the biggest gamble is political. A Conservative Prime Minister who failed to win a general election outright because he was unable to persuade enough people to trust his party has chosen (like Thatcher in 1979) to risk confirming their suspicions rather than (as, say, Churchill had been determined to do after1951) allaying their fears. It worked for her because she made damn sure, at least before the poll tax fiasco, that she left the middle class welfare state untouched and because she could bank on enough residual support in the North to see her through. Cameron, on the other hand, is letting ‘middle England’ fend for itself, while a large part of the North (and of course most of Scotland) is a Tory-free zone, meaning he will need a bigger vote share than Thatcher did to maintain a working majority at Westminster. Even if Cameron finds a Coulson Mark II, then, it’s hard to see how together they can do much about these inconvenient truths.
All this presents Labour with an opportunity. Whether it’s one that its leader Ed Miliband is able to exploit may depend, at least in part, on whether his party can avoid making some of the same mistakes as the Conservatives. It has to listen to voters more than to its own members and the media. It has to avoid the complacency that comes from winning second order contests, like by-elections, local elections, and elections in Wales, Scotland and Europe. And all this can only come about if it acknowledges the scale and the scope of public disillusion with what it had done and become in government. In opposition at least, you are a price-taker rather than a price-maker: deprived of the opportunity to implement policies that deliver the goods to key sections of the electorate, and having used up in office whatever chance you may have had of securing a long-term shift in public perceptions, you simply have to go with the grain. That means giving up, at least for a while, some of your most deeply-held beliefs and admitting – genuinely rather than through gritted teeth – that your rivals may be more in touch with public opinion than you’ve been. That’s democracy, and – as the Conservatives took so long to remember – parties which fail to meet the electorate at least half way, are doomed to failure until they do.
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.