My ConHome column: Labour and the Conservatives know what they need to do to win in May. But they’re still not doing it.

by Stephen Tall on January 5, 2015

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here last week. In particular, admire how I seamlessly and subliminally insert the Lib Dem slogan ‘stronger economy, fairer society’. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Does any party want to win a majority any more? It’s a serious question. I don’t mean, ‘Does any party want to have more MPs than all the others put together?’ Obviously, they all want that. The trouble is, though, that Labour and Conservatives (and their activists) seem to want to do it on their own terms, without any compromise. No-one appears prepared to take the risks needed to attract voters from the other side. And that makes winning a majority a much more difficult task.

I remember an interview with Tony Blair in the lead-up to his 1997 election triumph in which he recalled with amused bafflement the complaints from some of his own party that “even Tories are voting for us now”. It’s not a complaint that Ed Miliband will hear too much. What little additional support he has attracted to Labour since 2010 has come almost wholly from my party, the Lib Dems: easy electoral pickings which Labour was confident would see it safely over the finishing line. But now, with its Scottish social democratic vote peeling off to the SNP, its middle-class progressive vote atrophying to the Greens, and its working-class ‘blue Labour’ vote lured by Ukip, it’s all looking a bit dicey. Unofficially, Labour is focusing on the 68 seats which will give it a majority of one. Realistically, its senior figures are beginning to think through how they can survive as a minority government without the perpetual hand-to-mouth turmoil of the Callaghan years.

It’s no more cheerful on the Conservative side. After all, the party won 36 per cent in 2010 and failed to win a majority — so what chance is there of doing better next time when it’s averaging 31 per cent in the polls? It might have been different, of course…

If David Cameron had thrown his weight behind the Alternative Vote, then his party would have much less to fear from Ukip splitting the right-wing vote, and might now (YouGov’s Peter Kellner speculates) be in a winning position.

If Jesse Norman hadn’t kaiboshed the Conservatives’ manifesto promise to reform the House of Lords, the Lib Dems would have had no excuse to pull the plug on the re-drawing of constituency boundaries to correct the current anti-Tory bias in the system.

If George Osborne had resisted the temptation to be too clever by half in his 2012 budget — cutting the top-rate of tax for the wealthiest, introducing a myriad of controversial tax-hikes for everyone else — then the Conservatives might have benefited more from the economic recovery.

However, the biggest ‘what if’ applies equally to both parties. It is this: ‘What if you wanted — really wanted — to win a majority in May 2015, what would you need to do to achieve it?’ For Labour, the answer is obvious: reassure voters it can be trusted to create a stronger economy. For Conservatives, the answer is obvious: reassure voters it can be trusted to create a fairer society. Yet each has deliberately eschewed the obvious answer throughout this parliament.

It was always going to be hard for Ed Miliband to win back the mantle of economic competence. The Great Recession happened on Labour’s watch, and, though it might protest (correctly) that neither Conservatives nor the Lib Dems were calling for public spending cuts or greater banking regulation at the time, it is the Blair/Brown governments which copped most of the blame. However, Mr Miliband seems, oddly, to have believed that ignoring this problem could make it go away (quite literally so when he failed to mention the deficit at all in his autumn conference speech). The voters need little persuading that Labour cares; they do need persuading that a Labour government will be able to afford to care.

It should have been much easier for David Cameron to have claimed the Conservatives could be the party of social justice. The economic pendulum was swinging in his direction: an economic recovery was likely to happen in this parliament. And just as Gordon Brown got the blame for what happened on his watch, so the Conservatives were likely to get the credit for what happened on theirs: that’s why Cameron and Osborne are more trusted with the family finances than Miliband and Balls. All the Conservatives needed to do was demonstrate that we really are “all in this together”, that it is not only the party of the rich. It has failed. Instead, the Cameron/Osborne approach has simply re-inforced the widespread perception that, if you struggle to make ends meet or don’t yet own your own home or look to the state to provide good-quality public services you couldn’t afford to pay for, then the Conservative party isn’t for you. The voters need little persuading that Conservatives understand the value of money; they do need persuading that a Conservative government understands the value of anything else.

To reach out to voters who aren’t part of your base used to be the most natural thing in the world for any party aspiring to win a majority. After all, your base had nowhere else to go. Now there’s no end of choices. Are you a right-winger who thinks the country’s gone to the dogs? Vote Ukip. are you a left-winger who thinks no problem can’t be solved by taxing a few more of the 1%? Vote Lib Dem Green. So I can understand why Cameron and Miliband spend as much time trying to hold on to the voters they have as they do worrying about how to win over any more voters to the cause. But it’s a short-term vote-retention tactic, not a long-term vote-attracting strategy.

To win a majority, parties need broad appeal not narrow sectionalism; to get the balance right between a stronger economy and a fairer society. Both Labour and the Conservatives know what they each need to do. They’ve know it for almost five years, but have rarely acted on it (and have been spooked back to their comfort zone by the adverse reaction of their core vote on the rare occasions they’ve ventured beyond). Which leads me to suspect that — the answer to my original question — both are far more scared of losing the next election than they are hopeful of winning it.

* Predictions update: a year ago in this column, I made five predictions for 2014. Looking back, I don’t think I did too badly (though I was wrong on some details). But I’ll highlight one: “I’ll stick my neck out… The polling averages for the parties (according to UK Polling Report at 31 Dec 2014) will be Labour 36 per cent, Conservatives 33 per cent, Ukip 14 per cent, Lib Dems 10 per cent.” Actual: Labour 34 per cent, Conservatives 31 per cent, Ukip 15 per cent, Lib Dems 8 per cent. So, all within the margin of error, and a 3% lead for Labour over the Conservatives. Not too shabby, eh? You’ll notice I’m not attempting to repeat history — the election in five months’ time is unpredictable enough, so trying to imagine what the polls will say a year from now is utterly uncallable.