No, the Conservatives still can’t win an election
...but New Labour could lose against Cameron’s Not-the-Tory-Party.
Did you see that silly youngster trying to look like a big man who knows about gun crime by posing for the cameras on a grim Manchester estate last week? And the kid making a handgun sign behind David Cameron’s head looked pretty stupid, too.
That whole ‘gun culture’ furore showed up Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party, in a revealing light. First he made what he probably imagined would sound like deep comments (but which came out more weird than wise) about how the shooting of three teenagers in south London proved that our society was ‘badly broken’ and that fathers should be ‘compelled’ to stay with their children.
While the rest of us pondered whether he intended to make divorce illegal again, Cameron went up north to get himself photographed looking concerned on a hell-hole estate. When the PR stunt turned into an embarrassing debacle with that photo of a teenage hoodie pretending to shoot him from behind, Cameron’s spokesmen tried to claim that this incident only proved he was right about the lack of respect. So the fact that the Tory leader can now have the piss taken out of him in public by unemployed dope-smoking youth is actually, er, a victory for Cameron….
The cynical press had a field day with the picture, leaving us with the impression of an adolescent poseur pretending to be a gunman and a fortysomething poseur pretending to be a statesman. (Not to mention the poseurs of Greater Manchester Police pretending to be tough on drugs, who arrested the hoodie for possession of cannabis after he and his mates boasted about it on the TV news – suggesting that while it is not really an arrestable offence to smoke dope any more, it is to talk about it to the BBC.)
It might appear then that Cameron has been made into a figure of fun, long before he even gets to a general election. Yet despite all of this, the most recent opinion polls show the Conservatives well ahead of New Labour for the first time in a decade – between 11 and 13 per cent ahead, with Cameron apparently doing much better that Gordon Brown, the prime-minister-in-waiting and his most likely electoral opponent.
For years, good judges have wondered whether it would ever be possible for the Tories to win power again, after the historic maulings they received at the hands of Tony Blair’s New Labour in an unprecedented three successive elections. Now the same observers are discussing a Cameron government as a serious possibility.
However, we need to place two important riders on that discussion. First, it still seems true that the Conservatives cannot win a general election of their own volition; but it also seems clear that New Labour could now lose one.
Second, if that scenario should come about, and Cameron ends up in office by default, it will not be as the leader of anything recognisable as a Conservative government. Just as Labour had to be transformed into an entirely new election-winning machine, with completely different policies, leaders and organisation, so the Conservatives will need to be changed beyond recognition. In that sense it remains true that the Tory party which lost the past three elections will indeed never win another one.
Let’s look at these points more closely. Cameron’s Conservatives are still in a weaker position than Blair’s New Labour when it was in opposition a decade ago. The polls then put Blair up to 29 per cent ahead of John Major’s desperate Conservative government. Moreover there was a sense of political impetus behind Blair which Cameron still lacks. Indeed, so shallow is Cameron’s support that he has experienced the same problem as other parties in mobilising any sort of stable core vote. Party membership has not risen since he became leader on a wave of media enthusiasm. When it comes to attracting new support, the Conservatives still face problems in winning over young voters (a recent poll suggested that, while many would no longer vote New Labour because of Iraq, nor would they consider switching to the Tories), and in breaking through regional barriers in the north of England, Scotland and Wales.
But set against all that is the recognition that, increasingly through the recent era, elections in a society such as the UK have been lost rather than won – ie, new governments tend to get elected for what they are not, more than for what they are. Since the political programmes of both the old left and right became exhausted and lost their purchase on public opinion, there has been no genuine social movement behind any mainstream party. Governments either lose office because they are unpopular, or hang on because the electorate thinks even less of the opposition.
In this context the key factor in British politics today is not Cameron’s campaign, but the deep crisis of authority afflicting New Labour. The Conservatives’ success in the polls is parasitic on that crisis. Blair’s government is in a state of paralysis – beset not only by police investigations, but by a loss of political will. New Labour is now incapable of pushing through any major policy initiative (even if it had any to pursue). Everybody is waiting for Blair to go and, presumably, Brown to take over. But anybody around the Labour Party still expecting Brown to pull a radical agenda from up his sleeve the moment he moves in is deluding themselves (again). The chancellor’s moral cowardice shines through in everything he doesn’t do today.
Meanwhile, the lacklustre ‘beauty contest’ for deputy leader confirms that there is no meaningful political struggle for the soul or the future of New Labour, just a collection of careerist cliques desperate to hang on to high office. I have even heard it said that some leading New Labour supporters see their best bet of re-election as Cameron getting caught up in a media scandal, which speaks volumes for their confidence in their new leader.
New Labour is also up against the powerful anti-incumbency factor that now influences politics across the Western world. With little of political substance to fall back on, governments today rely more on the politics of image and personality. Yet as with all celebrity-style culture, this shallow base leaves them prey to the ceaseless search for the new, the ‘next big thing’ in image-marketing. Thus not only is Blair dismissed as past his sell-by date, but Brown is already widely seen as boring and yesterday’s news, before he has even become prime minister. And despite his dull image, a minister like David Miliband can now be promoted as a serious alternative to Brown in taking on Cameron, purely on the basis that he is the new New Labour. In this respect, Cameron the personable young lightweight suits the times. The fate of the US Republicans in last year’s congressional elections showed how it is possible for a deeply entrenched ruling party to lose to unimpressive opponents thanks to the anti-incumbency factor.
If Cameron should succeed in exploiting the government’s crisis, however, it would not mean the election of a Tory government in anything but name (always assuming that they haven’t changed the name to Progressive Conservatives or something before the election). What passes for Conservatism currently looks like little more than a non-political personal PR campaign for Cameron. Its main aim appears to be to distance itself from its own past, self-consciously promoting itself as the Not-the-Tory-Party, led by Mr Not-Margaret-Thatcher. The Conservative leadership has few policies of its own (and those they do announce appear to have been made up over breakfast that day), but possesses a steely determination to reject everything its predecessors ever stood for. The one group the non-combative Cameron is always spoiling for a well-publicised fight with is his own party’s traditionalists. Indeed, as I have noted before, one of the PR problems Cameron has had is the unwillingness of anybody bar Lord Tebbit to put up much public resistance to his pursuit of the ‘new’.
We are left with a situation where, in purely polling terms, the political map may look more fluid and ‘interesting’ than for a decade. Yet in terms of any real political struggle, nothing is moving or happening at all. One of the more remarkable developments, for example, is the silent disappearance of the Liberal Democrats from national debate, in circumstances where a third party surely ought to be able to clean up on public disaffection with the main players.
And in an age of personality politics without personalities, the stature of political leaders seems to diminish generation by generation. Look at the collection of gormless figures standing for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Or some of the faceless dweebs behind Cameron on the Tory front bench. Or the fact that mentalist Michael Meacher, the 9/11 conspiracy theorist, is the only MP apparently prepared to stand against the charmless Brown as leader. Or that Miliband, a lump of wood in a suit, can be seen as the great white hope of New Labour. Blair truly does look like a giant in comparison with these political pygmies. Little wonder, then, that Cameron the smoothie former PR executive, can cut a dash across the political stage. But little wonder, too, that he has made such little difference in the world outside Westminster.
Although I have never been a Conservative, I would even be prepared to welcome a true Tory revival if it could breathe some oxygen into political life. But a contest between a paralysed New Labour under Brown or whoever and a bloodless Cameron PR campaign is the last thing we need. Time to set aside all the infantile poseurs playing at being big guns, and have a proper grown-up shoot-out about where our society is heading.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
spiked-issue: British politics