What does the Conservative Party have to do to win the next election?

By Matt Beebee

The 2010 General Election should have been a clear Conservative victory. It wasn’t. 64% of those that voted backed other parties. This was a perplexing outcome given the Tories were facing a tired and battered Labour Party, trudging through a global financial crisis with rising public debt. Under the leadership of the young David Cameron, who had shifted the party towards the centre ground, victory looked all but certain. Yet failure to win outright forced the Conservatives’ hand into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; a relationship that has been tetchy to say the least.

The relatively poor show was always going to give the Conservatives, who were polling 20 points ahead of Labour before the 2010 election, an uphill struggle in the 2015 general election given the tough decisions they would have to make in government – on the economy in particular. Former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo has blunted declared “the Conservatives appear to be doomed” at the next general election. He could be right; no party has ever increased its share of votes at a subsequent general election since 1955.

With such pessimistic inevitability, should the Tories concede themselves to losing the election? No. Much could change during the remaining two years of government, but the Tories have three big obstacles they must – and more importantly can – overcome to win the next election.

First, there is the matter of the Labour Party. Despite Labour consistently polling around 10 points better than the Tories, they come out worse in two important polls: preferred leader and economic competence. Although it iz grossly unfair to dismiss Ed Miliband as a leader based on his physical appearance, the electorate do seem to lean favourably towards David Cameron’s style and aptitude as an orator. Labour’s continual dithering over turning ideas into policy, if left too late, could play into the Tories hands. To their credit, they have a plan and are sticking to it. Likewise, Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, is considered a prime target to personify Labour’s ineptitude with his rowdy, firebrand style of politics. The Conservatives will seek to push this idea; Labour has no strategy for taking tough decisions in government and opposes with little in the way of alternative policy.

Then there is Europe; the Conservative Party’s ‘elephant in the room’. Cameron has already committed himself to an in/out referendum in 2017 if he is Prime Minister. The paradox is that Cameron does not wish to leave the EU; he wishes to reform it politically while retaining the economically vital single market. He has felt the urge to accommodate the Eurosceptic crowd given the surge of UKIP and the perceived natural Euroscepticism because of Britain’s island culture. This pandering should be avoided. A YouGov poll from January stated 34% would vote to leave the EU while 40% would vote to remain. Cameron should instead be pushing for a reformed EU treaty – something he is confident of doing – that reclaims parliamentary sovereignty and supports economic liberalism, demonstrating that he does worry about European encroachment while emphasising that leaving the EU single market is to the detriment of the UK’s private sector. This should win back the Eurosceptic defectors and render a dangerous referendum unnecessary. Despite its many troubles, voters must remember the EU is still the world’s largest market and the UK’s major trading partner.

However, it is the economy that wins elections. Although ComRes, a polling consultancy, found the electorate are more likely to trust ‘Team Cameron & Osborne’ over ‘Team Miliband & Balls’ on the economy, this should not cause complacency. The deficit may have fallen year-on-year since 2010, but only minimally; public spending is continually higher than it should be, largely due to automatic stabiliser payments and continual ringfencing of certain government departments – international aid is a particular bitter pill for a domestic electorate facing squeezes. Removing ringfencing will allow for efficiency within departments, further reduce departmental spending on waste, while also freeing up money for capital spending projects, generating multiplier effects on job creation and consumer demand.

Unemployment continues to creep above 2.5million, too. More should be done to cut unnecessary red tape that hampers job creation. Pressing ahead with radical reform to the welfare system, although painful, seems to strike a chord with the electorate. If people can be pushed back into work through welfare and regulatory reform, job creation and growth will soon pick up. If growth, rising employment and greater deficit reduction can be achieved the Tories can at last claim to have moved the economy out of the doldrums, significantly boosting their electoral hopes.

Securing an outright majority in 2015 will be a tough ask for the Conservatives given the precarious position they defend and the fragility of the economy is by no means bound to change, despite recent upturns. With a clear focus on the right policy choices over the next two year,, so to outmanoeuvre their main rivals, the Conservatives stand a better chance of re-entering government in 2015.

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