The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Sunday, July 31, 2005
The "stupid" question: How big a hole are the Tories in?
by Peter

Not two months after their third succesive general election defeat, speculation is mounting that the Tories may lose next time around too. It is a stupid debate at one level. The two months have seen a myriad of events capable of influencing public opinion over the long-term (bombs, Olympics, the EU) and we can have little idea how these are going to play out. But it is also a "stupid" question: one about how the economy is going to progress.

Mike Smithson has run through some of the issues on politicalbetting, and his article is informed by the interesting analysis of Anthony Wells. Psephology (and reading the runes of the last election) can only take us so far, but this conclusion nearly everybody who shares Conservative values is already voting Conservative does suggest that the tory task is harder than most Conservatives are prepared to admit.

Anthony Wells makes an interesting point about the relatively weak position of the Tories among various age groups, including younger voters where there was an 11% Lab to Lib Dem swing The Conservatives have been here before, and recovered; back in October 1974, the Conservatives trailed the Liberals by 24% to 27% amongst under 25s (although obviously they cannot rely upon Charles Kennedy becoming embroiled in a dog-shooting incident.)

The comment reminds us just what a lucky period 1974-1979 was for the Conservatives. Labour lost a relatively popular leader and replaced him with a man who found it hard to claim a mandate for anything. Jeremy Thorpe became embroiled in a long-running and damaging investigation, in which lurid allegations were aired in the press. His successor, David Steel, was popular with voters, but led the Liberals into a pact which ensured that they took a share of the blame for the things the government got wrong, and little credit for the things the government got right. This alone amounted to a perfect storm for the Tories. But above all there was the economy.

These were the bleak years of stagflation – partly fed by the aftermath of Heath's well intended (but cack-handed) push for growth but mostly by the oil crisis - leading to the Winter of Discontent. Things could not have gone better for the Tories. They would be foolish indeed to expect to recover support the way they did in this period.

The Tories' dearest belief (in my view the belief that sets them apart form the rest of the world) is that they are good at running the economy. This is simply a question of selective memory. The Tories remember their structural reforms (and the money they made personally out of each and every privatisation). The rest of us remember the rocky road we travelled: mass unemployment under Geoffrey Howe; boom and bust under Nigel Lawson; negative equity; and Norman Lamont singing in the bath.

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats is to avoid incidents with animals, and to develop further credibility on the economy. The UK is probably not going to go back to the 1970s. China's boom has provided quite a benign environment for the UK (see this week's Economist). Manufactured goods have declined in price and kept inflationary pressures at bay. And the UK has done better out of this than (say) Italy or Germany because our manufacturing sector was already tiny (and now "completely hollowed out" according to the Item Club).

But the economy is going to get worse. And Liberal Democrats – who share the values of 60% of the electorate - will be in a position to put forward a package of reforms that are trusted. If this also pleases "aspirational" voters, so much the better.
posted by Apollo Project @ 11:29 am  
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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.

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