Saturday, March 10, 2007

Looking inside the Tory party.

I just returned from a dinner with a top Tory party official. The Conservative Party of the UK is out of power and has been for some years. So I was interested in what he was going to say. It is not critical to me who said it so I will leave that part out, but what was said is interesting.

First, he assured everyone that the Conservative Party members of parliament are totally and completely behind David Cameron. I take that to mean that quite a few Conservative Party MPs are not particularly happy with Cameron.

Typically when a top party official speaks to local party members (I was the only outsider present) he is telling them what the party leadership wants people to believe. And what party leaders want the members to believe is happening is often at odds with what is really happening. You can’t exactly say that reality is the complete opposite of the official line but you are safe in saying that the two never quite correspond.

It became apparent to me immediately what issues are dividing the party. It is Cameron’s Labour-lite policies. I say this because the second point this party leader made was that Cameron’s Green politics and such are “really conservative” principles all along. He hammered home that point several times. So it appears that many Tories simply don’t believe it.

The third point he made was that the policies of Cameron are the reason the party is doing well in the polls. His argument is that there is a body of voters who float between the major parties and Cameron’s policies appeal to them. The reason the Conservative Party had lost recent elections, he argued, was that these voters were turned off by Tory policies and now Cameron has struck a cord with them and they are coming home.

This struck me as totally imaginary or very nearly so. If Cameron’s Labour-lite Greenie politics is the key to Conservative Party success that would imply that the reason Margaret Thatcher became one of the longest serving Prime Ministers was due to her Green politics and her mimicking of the Labour Party on policy. The idea strikes me as farcical.

Let us first ask why Tony Blair succeeded. You had John Major distance himself tfrom Thatcher’s policies. He rushed to the Left much the way Bush Sr. did against the Reagan legacy. On the other hand Tony Blair, like Bill Clinton, moved in the opposite direction.

What drives Tory party poll numbers today? The prime reason that people are willing to vote for the Conservatives is disgust over Tony Blair -- disgust that is as justified as disgust over Bush. But our Tory party spokesman tonight kept insisting that the reason for the poll numbers is enthusiastic support for Cameron and I don’t believe it.

Cameron’s electoral strategy is to appear exactly like Labour on most issues. That wins the party some support but dissatisfies their own base. But he hopes to keep the Tory base simply because they are so anxious to send Blair into the electoral dustbin. Even Labour wants that.

Some time soon Blair will be gone. And Gordon Brown will be Labour Party leader. He has nothing great to offer the voters. But he has the same qualification that makes Cameron appealing to so many voters -- he’s not Blair. When Brown takes over the Labour Party, I suspect our speaker of this evening will be in for an unpleasant surprise. He will find that much of what drove Tory poll numbers was disgust for Blair not support for Cameron. I could be wrong, of course, I’ve have been before. We’ll only see when it happens but when Brown takes over I expect a drop in Tory poll numbers and an improvement for Labour.

But Labour has nothing to solve the pressing problems that plague the country. National Health Service is a mess and people are dissatisfied. All Labour can do is promise to spend more money. The “conservative” response is exactly the same thing -- spend more money. Pensions are in crisis and Labour wants to solve the problem by raising the retirement age. The Conservative Party solution is to support Labour.

The Conservative Party is playing down their own policies, they say, because they don’t want Gordon Brown to nick them before the election. But from what I heard this evening Brown would only be nicking back the policies that the Conservatives nicked from Labour. What I’m not seeing is anything that distinguishes the Tories from Labour other than the fact that Cameron isn’t Blair.

Tonight’s speaker did have one point for the true conservatives in the audience. He told them that Cameron is the only Tory leaders in recent years to say he supported marriage! Well, that went over like, like nothing. No reaction. No one seemed to be excited by it. What does it mean in reality -- a few small tax breaks for married people (and I assume those in civil unions). But those few tax breaks will be eaten up by all the other Labour-lite polices the Tories are rushing to adopt. The net result will be higher taxes not lower taxes.

It isn’t that the Tories couldn’t steal thunder from the Left. They could but they won’t. Instead they are mimicking the worst aspects of Labour. I believe Mr. Cameron could support reduced taxes and some other small government proposals and yet steal support from the Left parties if he would publicly state the Conservatives want the immediate withdrawal of British forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Liberal Democrats have done it and saw support grow. At the same time many Lib Dems started sounding more free market and voicing concerns about taxation. No wonder they saw support grow. They were stealing votes from both sides.

Can the Tories win the next election? I suspect they can but not because they are Labour-lite. And the bump they get now, because Cameron is compared to Blair, will die out as well since they won’t be running against Blair. Blair will be on the curb by then. But they will run against a party with no ideas and no means of solving the pressing problems plaguing the country. That will help the Tories to some degree but it appears that they don’t have much to offer either. And it appears their election strategy is to offer nothing.

Like many, come the next election, I’ll be happy about one thing-- Blair won’t be office. I know that whoever is elected president in the United States in 2008 it won’t be George Bush. That thrills me but I have no reason to be excited about any of the likely replacements. And the same is true for Blair. It will be a good thing he is gone and a shame that the main two options will be Brown or Cameron as neither man has what is needed.

Meanwhile I think the Tories should keep an eye on the Liberal Democrats. Just as the Lib Dems have taken support from Labour they are in position to do the same to the Tories. With Cameron sounding very much like a Labour candidate it wouldn’t take much of a shift on the part of the Lib Dems for them to woo over Tory voters. That would create an entire new ball game and a scenario for which the Tories are not prepared.

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