Friday, October 07, 2005

UK Conservative Party leadership

David Farrar has been actually AT the conference and watched it all – and it is an exciting race to see who becomes the new leader – out of David Davis, David Cameron, Ken Clarke, Liam Fox and Malcolm Rifkind – all striving to rescue the party from its three in a row defeat, which in British terms (with 4-5 year electoral terms) is enormous. Michael Howard has stepped down with dignity, and can, at least, claim to have started moving the party from the old fashioned grey haired “born to rule” reputation it has had, and won some seats at the last election. However the party needs more, and this is why…

Labour has not only stolen the middle ground, it has moved over to the right on much economic and some social policy. Allowing private hospitals to provide NHS services, introducing tertiary education fees, bravely entering the war against Iraq, maintaining an agenda of more open markets and some reform of the EU – those are centre-right policies. The policies that half of the Tories would endorse, and their voters certainly have. All the Conservative Party has been playing with is scaremongering over immigration (pandering somewhat to latent racism), Euroskepticism, being tougher on crime and more choice in public services – in other words a bit more to the right than Labour. In an environment where the British economy is ticking over ok, particularly compared to sick western Europe, most Brits are reasonably content. There is no great mood for change – and Blair has won as a result.

The Conservative Party looks geriatric. It has been trying to move from that, but it is still largely seen as a party for high income, old, heterosexual white men and their wives – and I use those terms deliberately. Even the name – Conservative Party – implies that radical change are coming and they don’t want them, they want to keep things the way they have always been. It is difficult to see how the Party relates to young people other than those who are posh and driven to lead others. Equally, as much as it tries, ethnic minorities and gay people always seem like they are wanted for image – but not really wanted in the Party. Note this is public impressions – it is a party for well off powerful people who want to govern, not for all businesspeople, or people who want less government or people who are diverse.

It is like Don Brash’s ill calculated use of the term “mainstream New Zealand” – which was meant to appeal to the Christian right of which he is not a part, and meant to appeal to the bigotry of many – the problem is Brash doesn’t really believe in it, and it shows. He would hardly say that ethnic minorities (e.g. his wife!), gay and lesbian, Maori or others are not mainstream. Unfortunately the Tories have not got a good record on looking liberal on personal liberty matters – which is one reason the Liberal Party, forerunner of part of the Liberal Democrats, existed.

So can the Tories find a leader from the existing stable of contenders to modernise the party, through off this stuffy image AND establish a clear place on the political spectrum to appeal to British voters sufficiently to win the next election.

The problem is, I don’t think it can.

Liam Fox and Malcolm Rifkind are too far from the past and wont get very far

Ken Clarke can put on a performance, but is far too cozy with Europe to succeed. He is clearly the leftwing contender, and sees the main reason the Tories are losing are because they are not occupying the middle. I suspect Ken Clarke would be seen as a tired old has-been who could hold a Cabinet posting with some dignity, but that is that. Clarke did talk about individual choice and lower tax – though we are really only talking increments here.

The most publicity has been about the two Davids, with much been about comparing their ages and backgrounds. Davis is older, and has not gone to private school, and has shown himself to be slightly more socially conservative. Cameron has much more youth and vitality, and a survey of undecided voters undertaken by the BBC indicated that he had the edge, by looking vibrant, “not like a politician” and intelligent. His wealthy background did not influence most of them negatively.

I think David Cameron would be the most popular leader, with the electorate, of any of the contenders. His talk of a modern Conservative Party (compared with New Labour) which is younger looking and appears to be more socially liberal – would help win some people over - although it will look curiously like a new version of New Labour.

However, he will be hamstrung by not being able to offer British voters a compelling reason to vote Conservative. He wont offer serious tax cuts – so they wont be voting for their own money back. He wont offer substantially greater choice in health and education, he actually campaigns against allowing people to opt out of the NHS with their money to go private. He doesn’t want to attack Labour’s nanny state approach to everything from school lunches to health and safety, to its willingness to let local government do anything nutty it wants. In other words, he is going to campaign to win largely on the basis that Gordon Brown is tired old Labour with a new brand on it – and he can offer someone if not something fresh.

If it wins the election for the Conservative Party that is all they will care about – which is sad. This is a proud party which has done much for Britain, most recently the reforms of Thatcher that Blair implicitly endorses. If all it stands for it getting into government and not doing as much as Labour is doing - it will be repeating the events of every Tory government from the 1950s through to 1979- conserving! Doing very little. A party that believes in being in power and nothing much else.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both believe in philosophies, although the Lib Dems are split on theirs! The Conservative Party should believe in individual freedom, and government getting out of the way of businesses and people’s private lives, unless it is necessary to defend their rights.

I’d join it if it did!

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