I suggested last week that “the most interesting question in British politics is really ‘Why are the Tories not at over 40%?’.”
Today, a rather more significant political commentator, Ben Brogan, asks the same question, enquiring if:
“the question underlying politics at the moment is not, in fact, why Labour is doing so well, but why the Conservatives are doing so badly”
I think this is the crucial question. As I noted last week, it can’t be that the cuts mean it is impossible for the Tories to do better than they are – they were above 40% both at the end of 2010 and at the start of 2012, when the economic situation was far worse than it is now.
So why are they no-where near this now, and what could they do about it?
Mike Smithson suggests an answer – that the Tories are more widely disliked than Labour, even though David Cameron himself is reasonably well liked.
I think there’s a lot of truth to this. The Tory disease is, at root, a problem of sympathy and empathy.
As Andrew Rawnsley notes, for the first three years of his leadership, David Cameron worked really hard to persuade voters that he personally, and his party under his leadership, was in touch with the concerns of the British people, that he understood what mattered to them, that he shared their frustrations and ambitions.
This activity wasn’t always convincing.
But despite much mockery, Cameron was successful, though more for himself than for his party.
In the end, people were willing to listen to a ‘new sort of Conservative’.
Since the financial crisis, that emphasis on sympathy and empathy has largely disappeared from the language of modern conservatism.
The Tories can protest that they were subsumed into a grand crisis of governance of more importance than mere political messaging, but the effect of their approach was to present the Tories as once again the hard faced, hard-hearted party, and to undermine the work they had done to communicate their sympathy and empathy with the less well off.
Combine that with a leadership almost solely from the most privileged bracket of British national life, and you have a recipe for alienation.
First, those who might be open to a moderate conservative argument feel they cannot support a party whose policies seem so unnecessarily harsh, while those who are sympathetic to rigour are alienated as the party is unable to understand who the rigour should be directed at (not them, but other people, mostly). To make up for this, the Tories are then even more unpleasant to the ‘others’ thus cementing their reputation for gratuitous nastiness amongst the first group.
It’s actually more important for the Tories to be nice to their target voters than it is to show how hard they are to everyone else. Yet they repeatedly fail to realise this.
Can the Conservative party rid themselves of the Tory disease? I think they could, but I suspect they won’t.
The way to do it would be to position themselves firmly on the side of those on low to middle incomes, while portraying the rigour of austerity as a sadly unavoidable necessity, one that is done with the maximum of understanding and self-sacrifice from those lucky enough to be in a position of privilege.
In other words, A reluctant eat your greens government, led by a Prime Minister ostentatious only in his moderation. Counter-intuitively, this means dialing back on the welfare and scrounger rhetoric in order to spend more time communicating who they are for.
I don’t think the Tories will do this, because they did not follow through on their empathy agenda in opposition and so failed to root out the belief among Tory MPs that if only they had been firmer, harder, tighter lipped, more rigourous and slide rule minded they would have won more support.
So you end up with a party whose brightest MPs think it is wise to propose increasing VAT on books and children’s clothing, because it means a tax cut overall.