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.


Politaholic said...

One problem is that the political "centre-ground" is not always in the same place. It is a good deal further to the right than it was in, say, the 1960's. Then "centrist" views favoured a mixed economy and redistributive taxation. This would be regarded as the wildest Bolshevism nowadays.

OT said...

Yes I also think Dave has some real problems, not least divisisons in the camp. I think there is a lot of evidence to suggest that floaters aften tend to vote negatively against a party rather than positively - during the 1980s and early 1990s they voted against a divided Labour party, but since 1997 they have voted against a divided, rather tainted, Tory party. Are they more likely to vote against Gordon and his government or dave and his opposition?

Les Abbey said...

Maybe not the "centre ground" moving to the right, but the sides of the bell getting steeper. Ideas on both the left and the right fall off the edge easily now.

Just as there are no signs of a possible cabinet as left as 1964 there are also none of a Thatcherite style shadow cabinet either.

The problem with Cameron's public school background is that he has surrounded himself with clones. He should really limit the number if he wants it to not to hurt him.