If you’re a Conservative/LibDem supporter, this must be like watching Titanic, except that Nick Clegg and David Cameron and Ed Miliband aren’t even as appealling as DiCaprio, Winslet, and Zane. The iceberg has hit, the ship is peeling apart and sinking, and yet you know the end of the movie is ages away and already seems to have been going on for far too long.
For the rest of us, though, things as much worse than simply enduring a long, long movie in the cinema as being on the Titanic was worse than taking part in the movie.
Paul Goodman, executive editor of ConservativeHome, offers four reasons why he does not believe the Tories can win a majority in 2015.
There is really just one reason, but it’s a shattering iceberg:
Austerity: The proclaimed conviction that if only enough people are unemployed or in work but struggling on a low income, plus essential services cut to the bone and cut again, then the economy will improve.
The belief that the economy must be destroyed in order to save it is essential to Tory thinking and was adopted by the LibDems with hardly a gulp. Labour can only lose if they adopt it too.
Grant Shapps knows how to run a spam campaign, but given the only possibility of Tory governance after 2015 is for the LibDems to do miraculously well from their present polling position, he has the delicate job of convincing the people who voted LibDem last time and were hugely outraged at the coalition, to vote LibDem again this time. I don’t think Shapps can do it, though he might try to invent an alternate identity to do it for him.
The first of these apocalyptic horsemen is the Conservatives’ plight among ethnic minority voters.
Paul Goodman won’t say, obviously, “because the Tory party is racist”. He just notes that “Pakistani-origin Muslims, black voters, and Indian-origin Hindus have spread from Labour’s urban heartlands into the marginal suburban seats the Tories need to win” and that they’re not voting Conservative because…. well, not because the Tory party is actually racist, obviously, but because they remember Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit’s cricket test. And, although Goodman does not reference Warsi and Hunt, they’ve noticed that Jeremy Hunt was forgiven and promoted for the BSkyB debacle, while Sayeeda Warsi was demoted and sidelined for (relatively) a minor breach of expenses claims, no worse than Chris Grayling got away with.
the Tories’ second big problem: the rise of Ukip, which is poised to top the Euro-elections in 2014
The rise of UKIP should worry us all – all of us at least who are not part of its target demographic, the straight white men who are outraged that their problems and desires are no longer universally considered to be of paramount importance. But for the Tories, it’s a problem because straight white men are the voters who reliably turn out to vote Tory at general elections: if UKIP are doing well enough (and LibDems badly enough) that in some English constituencies they’re competing for third place, those are all votes which would otherwise have gone to the Conservative party.
Of course, as the Republican Party so ably demonstrated in this year’s Presidential elections, any party whose demographic appeal has traditionally been to straight white men who consider their privileged status a civic right, and who try to ramp up their votes by making themselves ever more appealling to straight white men outraged at having their civic right to be privileged subject to question, they definitely succeed in turning off voters who are not straight white men. You can’t ride both horses at once, which is why Paul Goodman checks “gay marriage” rather than “Europe” as a problem for the Tories:
In short, Ukip is not so much a political revolt against the governing class as a cultural one – an angry Poujadist movement of largely male and mostly older voters. No wonder Nigel Farage is flying the flag of opposition to same-sex marriage, just as he has long brandished that of support for grammar schools. He is wooing former Tory supporters by presenting Ukip as the Conservative Party they used to vote for. It won’t win any seats in 2015. But by filching many of the Tories’ activists and former voters, it is splitting the Right.
In truth, UKIP’s shtick is “bloody foreigners!” – they’re happy to throw homophobia and sexism into the mix, but their basic Englishisms are all aimed at the Uncle Matthew voter.
Uncle Matthew’s four years in France and Italy between 1914 and 1918 had given him no great opinion of foreigners.
“Frogs,” he would say, “are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.”
Pretending to be anti-Europe while knowing the UK cannot afford to withdraw from the EU, is a doublethink strategy that was always going to end in tears and division. To win UKIP voters back for 2015, the Conservative party would have to become more racist: but this is only going to create more long term problems for the Conservatives, just as it has and will for the Republicans. As Paul Goodman notes, short-term thinking would say go ahead and woo UKIP, but long-term thinking says hello, electoral disaster to come:
That it is probably the least significant is no comfort for the Tories. In 2001, one in 10 voters were members of an ethnic minority. By 2050, that will have risen to one in five. Yet Mr Cameron’s party scraped a paltry 16 per cent among these voters in 2010, and that total is likely to fall even lower.
Paul Goodman also perceives as a problem for the Tories that if you are a left-wing voter in a UK General Election in an English constituency, there is no party to vote for except Labour since the LibDems went Tory: in the 2011 election, the SNP scooped the LibDem vote, but voters who chose SNP in Scottish parliamentary elections are still as likely to vote Labour in Westminster elections. Or, as Goodman puts it:
The third problem for the Prime Minister is the converse of the second – that the Left is remarkably united.
Judging by polling results, two-thirds of the usual LibDem support genuinely believed the LibDems were a left-wing alternative to Labour, and have woken up to the fact that the party leadership are cheap-work conservatives who are happy to vote with the Conservatives for cutting the economy. The Greens may benefit from this in the long run – but right now, Labour gets all the benefit, and the National Health Action Party is not proposing to compete with Labour for winnable constitutiencies – if the NHA Party gets into Parliament, it will be at the expense of LibDem MPs who might otherwise have survived the party wipeout.
Finally, there is the problem of first-past-the-post electoral geography, or, as Paul Goodman puts it:
This brings us to the fourth and biggest problem for the Conservatives. Britain’s electoral geography, whereby Labour’s vote is spread more efficiently, has placed the Tories at a disadvantage for the past 20 years. Under the proposed boundary review, the Tories would have had to lead Labour by four points to win a bare majority. With the review dead in the water, the required lead stretches to seven points. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Mr Cameron is being asked to do all the running he can just to stay in the same place.
The Tories have been able to form a majority government with a minority of voters by winning in just enough constituencies: Labour has always had more widespread but less focussed support. But, if enough voters opt for Labour, and turn out to vote, widespread support becomes an advantage. Ironically, if the Tories had not set out to crush the vote reform referendum, if Cameron had been willing to bargain off the reform of the House of Lords with Nick Clegg for the boundary changes, this would have given the Tories an advantage in future elections wih voting reform, and in 2015 if Clegg had been willing to lead the LibDems to vote for the constituency changes.
Of course Nick Clegg may still give in. The Tories very much want him to, and while Benedict Brogan abuses him in the Telegraph and Conor Burns snarls at the ‘hissy fit’ in the Spectator, senior Tory strategists may be thinking that they got Nick Clegg to fight for the privatisation of the NHS with the right combination of threats and promises, and maybe they can do the same for this.
Scottish Conservative MSPs know that voting reform could only help their party, but I doubt if the Conservatives in Westminster listened to them.
And thus, the year ends. See you in 2013.
Update, 1st January
Voters deserted the Conservatives during a punishing year for the party as it dropped almost one-fifth of its electoral support, The Independent’s latest poll of polls can disclose.