Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The trouble with the Tories

A Guardian/ICM poll reports that the Tory lead in the opinion polls is 'crumbling' and that a hung Parliament is a distinct possibility.

There's an element of wishful thinking here, methinks - but it is certainly true, as Michael Portillo points out, that it is the Tories, more than Labour that have been hurt by the economic crisis.

Portillo - a man who knows a thing or two about indecision - identifies this as one of the core reasons. He's right but doesn't go on to identify the root of this. It has to do with a fundamental lack of confidence. The Thatcher/Howe axis of monetarism would have been in no doubt about how to approach this present situation. The Cameron/Osbourne team are less sure, which is probably just as well: the circumstances of the Howe deflationary budget can't be repeated because there's no expansion of private credit to be had that might ameliorate the effects of deep cuts in public spending - this being rather part of the problem in the first place. The aftermath of Britain's ejection from the ERM can't provide a model either because in this case Lamont's fiscal squeeze was accompanied by an expansionary monetary policy - and we've rather pushed this one about as far as it can go...

I'm not clear whether team Cameron/Osbourne understand this. Most of the available evidence would suggest that they don't and that their lack of confidence is more systemic. I've suggested that Cameron was like Blair and unlike Hague or Brown in that he understood what was wrong with his party. But this understanding is more superficial than Blair's ever was and doesn't seem to reach beyond fairly cosmetic changes to their attitudes towards gays and so on. Moreover, his party hasn't been persuaded of their need to change in the way that Labour was during its long sojourn in the electoral wilderness.

There's a more melancholy possible explanation for all this. Much has been written of the problems of the left in the press and the blogosphere. Too little attention is paid to the fact that a big part of the problem with the left is simply that in the 20th century it has been to a considerable extent a victim of its own success. Today conservatives feel the need to justify inequality in terms of liberty - without realising that they are in fact operating within the framework of political values that have been bequeathed to them by the left. Rare indeed are those conservatives that are prepared to say that they believe neither in liberty nor equality - yet traditionally this was their position. I'm wondering whether if in 21st century Britain we haven't arrived at a mirror image of this situation? The Thatcher revolution was so far-reaching that Blairism could only conceive of success by parking Labour's tanks on the Tories' lawn.

This it did and the effect has been more profound than most people suppose. The polling evidence from the last thirty years or so suggest that people never voted Tory because they believed in their social policy. It's perhaps an overstatement but people said, in effect, they may be bastards but at least they know how to run the economy. This reputation was lost when Sterling fell out of the ERM under Major and recent history would tend to indicate that they've never fully regained this.

So now we're left in the following situation. The feeling for 'change' is still palpable but the reason why this feeling isn't as deep as it was in 1979 or 1997 is because the electorate is essentially being confronted with two parties that claim to be 'progressive' but are basically both carriers of Victorian morality. The only question that remains is which lot are marginally less confused than the other when it comes to the whole business of the economy?

Not an edifying choice but I know who I'd still prefer - to which end I'd like to suggest the following to Labour as a possible election slogan: "You think we're bastards? Wait 'til you see the other lot." But for even a negative pitch like this to gain any traction, it might be an idea to call time on this sort of shit...

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