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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‘Rights for shares’ flop demonstrates wider crisis of creativity within the government

By Alex Bryan

This week it has come to light that George Osborne’s ‘rights for shares’ scheme has, two months before it is even due to begin, become an embarrassing failure for the government. It has been reported that only 6 companies have enquired about the plan, much lower than expected from a scheme which was deemed important and popular enough to star in the Chancellor’s speech to the Conservative Party conference.

When the policy was announced many, including myself, were sceptical, firstly of the chances of such a move boosting a dormant economy and secondly of the desirability of aiding businesses through the disempowerment and exploitation of their workers. The muted response to the policy shows that these reservations are widespread, and signals another failed attempt in the government’s search for growth.

With hindsight, it seems ludicrous that such a policy could have been given such a high billing, not only because of its limitations as a policy but also due to its rather traditional character. The general theory that restricting the rights of workers will enhance productivity and profits is steeped in history and, for a government (and specifically the leadership of the Conservative Party) which presents an image of modernisation and fresh thinking, rather staid.

The now entrenched divide between Conservative frontbenchers and backbenchers seems to be largely based on David Cameron’s process of ‘detoxification’, which involved the rejection of a number of key traditional conservative mantras. The Cameroons are often derided by those who do not regard them as ‘true’ conservatives, often to the point where backbench rebellions threaten government credibility.

It seems strange then that such an image would be maintained despite the central placement of such policies. However, this is not an issue of a backbench-frontbench divide. Rather, it is demonstrative of a wider crisis of creativity within the government at present. With the exception of a few ministers most departments have tended to continue presenting rehashed versions of old ideas, which have been embraced by Number 10.

The ‘rights for shares’ scheme was not only poorly thought through, it was disappointingly predictable. The specific implementation of the idea might be new, but the idea itself is far from it. This is not to say that all government policies must be entirely original, or that there is not something within political history that governments could learn, but that faced with the particular crises that are at hand, and with a government which trumpets the importance of innovation and entrepreneurialism from the rooftops, one might expect more interesting thought.

Even most of the policies floated in opposition to the government by their own MP’s are lacking in intellectual vim. The ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’ floated by a group of Conservative backbenchers was more a 1913 vintage than a 2013, other than a sole sensible and interesting suggestion (to establish a maximum number of members of the House of Lords).

Sometimes though, backbenchers come up with better ideas. This week Nadhim Zahawi MP echoed Boris Johnson’s previous call for an amnesty of all existing illegal immigrants within the UK, saying that the move would be economically advantageous as well as electorally astute for the Conservatives. Writing for a conservative think tank aiming to increase the popularity of the Conservative Party among ethnic minority voters, Zahawi’s suggestion is clearly far from selfless, but it is still brave and worthy of serious consideration.

Unfortunately, the government distanced itself from the suggestions as quickly as it could. The fact that the government could promote Osborne’s ‘rights for shares’ policy so whole-heartedly and yet dismiss Zahawi’s idea without public discussion demonstrates the wider pattern of unimaginative policy. Before David Cameron came into office, he was aware that this could be a problem, and he tried to solve it by bringing in unorthodox policy guru Steve Hilton. Since Hilton’s departure, the problem has only become more pronounced.

The economic crisis, in both length and character, differs from any we have previously faced. Globalisation, climate change, international terrorism and energy crises have created a peculiar political environment, which will not revert to a fabled status quo. In times of trouble, it is imperative that leaders are creative and imaginative, thinking about problems without genuine openness and ingenuity. Unfortunately, at the moment, it remains to be seen whether our leaders are thinking at all.

The government must keep its promise to enshrine the aid budget into law

By Alex Bryan

Throughout the past 3 years, a popular lament from Conservatives has been that the Government is being prevented from enacting truly conservative policies by the presence of the Liberal Democrats alongside them in office. The complainants have been particularly vocal with regards to policy areas such as Europe, law and order and liberalisation of employment laws. These are areas where the parties simply disagree, and have managed to form policy around the small amount of common ground they have, occasionally sniping at each other in the media in order to placate grumbling party bases.

Strangely, there are also issues which both parties have previously committed to which have now become areas of disagreement and backbiting, one of which became clear with the Queen’s Speech this week. Despite it featuring in the 2010 Conservative manifesto and the Coalition agreement, no commitment to enshrine the current 0.7% foreign aid budget into law was mentioned by the Queen. Both parties have said that they want to retain the current levels of spending, and both extol the virtues of Britain’s international role. Yet three years down the line their commitment to codify this into law seems to have been forgotten.

Why? Consensus seems to be that Cameron is bowing to his less moderate backbenchers, for whom foreign aid has always been an expensive luxury not to be afforded in hard times. A nice idea perhaps, but not one to be given priority at a time when British people are hurting, and our 0.7% would be a welcome boost to the budgets of more important departments. It is not only Tory backbenchers and members who think this: 7 out of 10 people believe that the UK spends too much on foreign aid, with only 7% thinking that the aid budget should continue to rise and be protected from Whitehall cuts.

David Cameron, though a confessed believer in the power of foreign aid, has already given approval to channel some of the aid budget into peacekeeping funds for British soldiers in those roles around the world. This is not a huge departure from the function of the aid budget as it existed before; the money would not go on combat operations or equipment, and would help to stabilise and support peace in troubled states around the world. In terms of ensuring that the aid budget promotes the security and development of individuals to the highest degree per pound around the world, this reform (as long as it does not subsume the rest of the aid budget) is not a bad thing.

But the danger remains that with an unwilling public and an increasingly disgruntled and vocal party, David Cameron will succumb to demands to cut the budget. The chances of doing that in the current Parliament are small, but by refusing to encase the current levels of spending in law, Cameron leaves open the option to cut the budget.

It has been well publicised that the UK has given aid to a number of countries, such as India, Russia and China, which are wealthy enough to be able to look after their own citizens. But international aid, operating in the way the UK government does, is centred around the poverty of individuals or groups of individuals around the world, not on nation-states. Aid channelled through the right kind of non-corrupt organisations into wealthy countries can help lift individuals who receive no help from their own government out of extreme poverty. This remains as true in Russia and China as in Rwanda and Chile.

Unfortunately, the recent changes in where we send foreign aid have meant that some countries such as China and Russia – and also Vietnam, Cambodia and Serbia-  will no longer receive funds. The argument that aid is needed by the poorest people in the world, regardless of how rich their government is, has been lost. But we cannot allow this to become a precedent, the start of a drift into isolationist and realist approaches to the world.

Aid makes a difference. At its most fundamental level, it saves, transforms, enriches and preserves lives. As a developed nation, we do not only have an obligation towards our citizens and allies; we have a duty to attempt to lift the general standard of human existence. In addition to stressing the moral imperative involved in international aid, David Cameron has become increasingly keen on stressing that aid and development help to protect us from extremism. Such an argument seems to me unnecessary, but the premise which supports it is hugely important; that the fight against poverty, illiteracy and war is also a fight against hatred, bigotry and brutism. It is a fight for a better world.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg know this. They know the importance of British international aid across the world; after all, it was they who committed to enshrine the current level of spending into law in the first place. Whilst in office, the previous Labour government was a great champion of international aid, tripling the aid budget from 1997 to 2009. In the midst of an unprecedented financial meltdown, the pressures on the budget were bound to increase, especially given the difficulty of quantifying the effects of aid. The government must resist such pressure and legislate to ensure that aid spending remains at least at 0.7%. It may well be the most important thing they ever do.

Local Elections 2012: a powerful blow from an effective opposition, or a voter-toxic Coalition?

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c/o NevilleHobson

By Luke Prescott

The local elections in England, Scotland and Wales have seen huge gains for the Labour party. Indeed, if mirrored in a general election vote Labour would have a comfortable majority, with Labour taking 38%, the Tories on 31% and the Lib Dems 16%. Big gains across swing seats in the South and Midlands illustrate that Labour and Ed Miliband are making the required headway into the seats that decide elections; even in Cameron’s own backyard.

So, is Ed Miliband leading Labour back to power for 2015 with an effective opposition? Not exactly; the current government is an opposition in itself and does not require a formal opposition to sit in Parliament alongside it. Cameron and Clegg (along with their lieutenants) wage war with each other on a number of issues (like the AV referendum) and have been doing so for some time. The beleaguered and delayed reform of the House of Lords is likely to give way to more open disagreement between the PM and Deputy PM.

The infighting of the Coalition is not going away, for both parties’, it useful in distinguishing themselves as each Party proves toxic to their opposite party’s core voters. This provides breathing space for Labour, as the Coalition partners save the most visceral of attacks for one another. Such an atmosphere is new to the opposition, and Ed Miliband needs to seize the opportunity to run a clean campaign in the run up to the general election.

Whilst the Lib Dems bleed the Tories by seemingly tying them down to the centre ground, and the Lib Dems haemorrhage voters, Miliband can concentrate, not on attacks, but on saving the NHS and tangible plans to nurture the economy back to health. Tory MP Gary Streeter has suggested that the Conservative party faithful are ”gagging” for the government to veer right on domestic issues traditionally seen to be in the Tory backyard, such as law and order, and the police. These credentials have been damaged of late; the cuts to police forces are seemingly to blame for the riots spreading around London, and the rest of the country.

Not only domestic issues, but the rise of UKIP (securing around 13% of votes where it fielded candidates) is also an inevitable source of tension. UKIP have seized the EU vacuum. Pressure has mounted on Cameron from influential elements of the Tory party to renegotiate and repatriate powers from the EU before the next election.

The pressure to veer right on domestic issues, such as the upcoming Lords Reform and Tory backbenchers eager for a Euro-showdown, will lead to disarray in the Coalition in the lead up to 2015. Ed Miliband has two roles in opposition: to derail the current Government, and then to promote his own. With one of these responsibilities taken care of already, Labour can concentrate on portraying themselves as the natural successors of the beleaguered Coalition in 2015. A positively run campaign will distinguish Labour and Ed Miliband from the pack, as voters shun austerity and hardship for a more optimistic vision.

However, a pit fall may come in the danger of losing national focus. The major legislative debates over the coming years will lead to inter-coalition battles and the media will continue to feed into the idea of a strained marriage between two coalition partners, seemingly putting on a brave face for the kids. Ed Miliband and Labour will struggle to be heard at times, and a danger is that at the next election they may look like the kid at a wedding, struggling to find a seat at the grown up’s table.