Saturday, 29 September 2007

Dave, what is your core take home message?

Stand by for some repetitive media comment about this being a 'make or break' Conservative Party conference for Dave Cameron. Of course, it is likely to be the last Conservative conference before a general election and the Conservatives are trailing in the polls. But these polls relate to how people think they would vote in a hypothetical election, not how they would actually vote after a campaign. Expect something of a recovery for the Conservatives just from media exposure unless things go disastrously wrong.

Most British voters like to position themselves around the centre of the political spectrum in a bell shaped curve. The Downs median voter theory has stood the test of time well and has actually influenced the decisions made by party strategists. So Dave was quite right to try and re-position the Conservatives nearer the centre of the political spectrum. The tactical ploy of 'vote blue, go green' was a smart way of indicating that the Conservatives had repositioned themselves, although the tree logo is one of the worst I have ever seen.

But Dave has three key problems. First, party activists tend to be more extreme than their voters and leadership. Many Conservatives were unhappy about his strategy, but were prepared to largely keep quiet when it seemed to be working, such was the appetite for power. However, Dave has been getting increasing criticism from the right, exemplified by an interview with Norman Tebitt in the Times magazine yesterday. (Tebbitt was once famously described by Michael Foot as a 'semi house-trained polecat').

Those on the right argue that three elections were won with right-wing policies under Gordon Brown's new pal, Margaret Thatcher. True, but the opposition was in complete disarray for much of this period and Mrs Thatcher did introduce some much needed changes in Britain. Then it all went sour with the poll tax.

These attacks seem to lead Dave to trim to the right, confusing his message. For example, he has come under criticism from environmental groups for moderating his stance, although some of the suggested policies in this area were likely to be none too popular with core Conservatives. Of course, there are a few drums he can comfortably bang, like the call for a referendim on the EU treaty. However, if I was going to give one piece of advice to Dave, it would be: stop looking opportunist by jumping on every bandwagon that comes along.

Second, there is anecdotal evidence that Dave's Old Etonian origins, married to an aristo wife who works in a posh Bond Street boutique, don't go down too well with some northern voters. You see remarks in vox pops of the kind that he wouldn't what it's like to live on a sink estate, but then what politician would? I don't think that being an Old Etonian should be a disqualification for public service. But it can be an image problem, as exemplified by 'Lord Snooty and His Pals' in Private Eye.

The biggest problem of all, however, is that it is still not clear what Dave's core take home message is. There has been a lot of talk about social responsibility, about people tackling issues in their own communities and involving charities more in service delivery (which New Labour has been doing anyway). That's all fine and well, but it's not as if New Labour is campaigning for social irresponsibility - certainly not under that son of the manse, Gordon Brown. Dave may be 'the heir to Blair' when that is the last thing that people want.

There has also been a lot of talk about families, the implicit message being that conventional families are somehow better than those with lone or step parents. But conventional families are perfectly capable of being dysfunctional (anyone who has provided pastoral care to students for over thirty years will know that).

It's important that we have an effective opposition and at one time I thought Dave would provide that. Now I'm not so sure.

Last week saw the death of Sir Ian Gilmour, one of the most erudite advocates of 'One Nation Conservatism'. It will take me a while to sort through my correspondence and notes of meetings with him (he gave me a great deal of help on projects in the early 1980s).

Sir Ian was if anything more of a toff than Dave: he was married to a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch and we used to lunch at White's. But he had no side to him. I think that's true of Dave as well. But he does need to make it clear this week what his core take home message is.

The case against an autumn election

I don't know whether Gordon Brown will call an autumn election. I don't think he knows himself. He will wait to see how 'Dave' gets on at the Conservative conference first. But he is under a lot of pressure from his advisers to call an autumn election. The media are also stoking up the story because it provides good copy for them.

An early election would be a disaster for British psephologists, because they are simply not ready. However, that is not my main concern.

British parliaments are elected for five years. Very often an election is called after four years (as in 2001 and 2005). John Major hung on to the last possible minute in the hope of a miracle recovery.

It is unusual to have an election after two-and-a-half years when a government has a working majority. Of course, there has been a change of prime minister. But it was well known in 2005 that Tony Blair was going to step down and that Gordon Brown would be his successor. No one can claim that they were misled. When Jim Callaghan took over from Harold Wilson, there were no serious (as distinct from partisan) demands for an election.

My sense is that the British public do not like unnecessary elections. Calling one now could seem opportunistic. These arguments would be somewhat weaker next May.

Many people in the Labour Party think that Gordon Brown should cash in on his poll lead while he can. But in some ways I think that the poll lead is a mirage. There is a 'Brown bounce', but the polls are also recording a 'bandwagon' effect. Brown's lead could easily evaporate in a campaign or he could end up with a smaller majority or no majority at all.

There is some anecdotal evidence that the Conservatives are doing better in the seats they have to win like my own constituency of Warwick and Leamington, the former 'Garden of Eden'. The poor Liberal showing could lead to a lot of Conservative gains (although with fewer seats they could still hold the balance of power).

Gordon Brown is a cautious man. There is much that he wants to achieve. He does not want his DNB entry to read 'Prime Minister, 2007-2007.' I think he will wait until next spring. The analogy with Callaghan in 1978/9 is misleading in my view because the circumstances were different (I was one of the few people not surprised by Sunny Jim's decision).

But I could be wrong. We could soon be plunged into the 'excitement' of a general election campaign and face the choice: Gordon or Dave (and what about Ming)?

A visit to East Hendred

Two of our daughters live in rural Oxfordshire and every so often we go out (with one of them at a time and their families) to a gastropub for Sunday lunch. I leave the bookings to them. From time to time I am vaguely aware that we are at a locale favoured by Roy Jenkins for lunch in his later life, e.g., The Fish at Sutton Courtenay.

I was therefore interested to find last Sunday that we were having a very good lunch (appropriately) in East Hendred where Jenkins had his main home. I greatly enjoy his biographies, especially the one of Churchill which was a masterpiece. I also admire his contrubution to reform as Home Secretary and the responsible way he acted as Chancellor. Being President of the European Commission is an impossible job, but he did his best.

I wouldn't say I was a fan of Roy Jenkins as a person. The only time I encountered him was at a 'degree in' for Nelson Mandela at Buck House. Our Chancellor, Sonny Ramphal, who had visited Mandela in prison, embraced him warmly. Jenkins made a long speech in flowery Latin which left even Prince Philip bemused. Jenkins was too much the upper class Oxbridge man for my personal taste.

Somewhat to the bemusement of my daughter, who did not know who Roy Jenkins was, we went off in search of his home and grave. Grumbling about possible damage to her Merecedes 4 x 4, we parked in the narrow lane by the church.

Inside the church looks like a typical 'broad church' C of E establishment, the only contemporary note being that the Rector is a woman called Rita and three of the four vicars in the pastoral team are women. By 'broad church', I mean no 'bells and smells' (stations of the cross in the most extreme cases), but no Evangelicanism either with speaking in tongues and all the other nonsense about which I might write at some time.

Now according to the DNB, Jenkins is buried in East Hendred churchyard. However, there do not appear to have been any recent burials there (one would expect his grave to be marked). I think his house was near the church, but I couldn't identify it. There was one that seemed similar, but it had a different name. I will have to check a video I have of a television programme about him when I have time. This was, of course, the house where Tony Blair went for mentoring lunches with Roy before he became prime minister.

East Hendred is a curious village. Near the Wantage Road, it is rather down market with some (former) social housing. As you progress down the long road through the village, it becomes more and more affluent with electronic gates controlling access. This was, of course, the area where Jenkins lived.

The road then continues up to The Ridgeway from where there are extensive views. Jenkins did not come up here to exercise, but followed a regime of walking briskly round his tennis court a predetermined number of times (there was, of course, also a croquet lawn).

From The Ridgeway you get an excellent view of the new particle accelerator at Harwell. One of my daughter's employees came up here with his girl friend in his white van and was rudely interrupted by the Thames Valley Police who suspected that he was a terrorist rather than engaging in the rites of Venus. When we were up there a police 4 x 4 circled around, demonstrating how extensive the terrorist threat is believed to be.

If anything can explain where the Jenkins grave is, please let me know. I don't think that there are two churches in East Hendred.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Introduction: why I prefer Gordon to Tony

For some time I have thought about writing a blog about British politics with the current ferment about a possible general selection providing the final stimulus. Pressure of work means that I won't be able to post very often, but I hope what I have to say may be of some interest.

I should say that I am not a very partisan person as my interest in politics is analytical. However, my politics were once described as marginally left of centre. I believe in the old Austrian social democrat slogan, 'as much market as possible, as much state as necessary.' I am also a supporter of UK membership of the EU.

I also have quite a lot of time for Gordon Brown. I met Gordon when I was chair of the Political Studies Association and we presented him with the Politician of the Year Award. We had quite a long chat and I found him a much more engaging person one to one than his dour image would suggest.

During the Blair-Brown transition period earlier this year, I was invited to a series of policy seminars run by the Smith Institute people at No.11 Downing Street. I must say that I prefer Gordon's dignified approach to politics to the celebrity imitating style of Tony. Politics is a serious business and Gordon frankly admits he is a serious person, as I am.

That doesn't mean that this blog will not be critical of Gordon from time to time.