May 5, 2010
Pity the British ToriesBy Christopher Chantrill
The British voters are voting tomorrow (May 6) in a general election after thirteen years of "New Labour" rule.
Thirteen years ago, Tony Blair promised Britons "joined-up government" that was "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" and focused on "education, education, education." Now they call him "Bliar."
Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister, promised to "end boom and bust." Then he blamed the biggest recession in Britain since World War I on the United States.
So the Conservative Party is romping to victory as the discredited Labour Party slinks back to its North London lair, right?
Wrong. The voters are in a foul mood, and after an expenses scandal involving Members of Parliament, they are declaring a plague on both their houses. Right now the Tories (the nickname goes back to the 17th century) are barely six to eight points ahead of the second-place Lib-Dem Party, which is just ahead of the governing Labour Party in most polls.
If the Conservatives are to win on Thursday, they would likely poll less than 40 percent of the vote. Not exactly a decisive mandate for change.
The Conservatives' big problem is that over the last decade, the liberal elite in Britain has successfully defined them as the narrow-minded "nasty party." The New Labour government led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown brought Clinton war-room tactics to British politics and demonized the Conservatives with incessant claims of "Tory Cuts," "Tory Sleaze," and "Same Old Tories." Immigration was unmentionable.
In 2005, the Tories elected David Cameron as leader, and he promised to rehabilitate the Tory "brand." He did it by moving to the center on the environment and on social issues like gay marriage. As Charles Moore writes in the Daily Telegraph, "Much of the Cameron programme of modernisation since 2005 has been designed to avoid the moment when Labour, Liberals and the BBC all conspire to attack the Tory 'lurch to the Right'."
But in moving the Conservatives toward the center to insure against the "lurch to the Right" charge, Cameron has demoralized the party base, who have started to leak to the anti-European U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). To them, Cameron is a namby-pamby wimp. Everyone on the Left, of course, knows that underneath the slick packaging, the Conservatives are still as nasty as ever.
At least Prime Minister Gordon Brown is trying to compete for the "nasty" prize. In a monumental gaffe, he referred to a 66-year-old widow and lifetime Labour voter as a "bigoted woman." All she had done was ask him questions about immigration, about taxes, and about university fees facing her grandchildren. Now we know what the Labour Party thinks of its base.
It seems that the Conservative Party is beginning to get a movement in the polls from the "Bigotgate" issue and the final TV debate. So maybe they can squeeze out a win on turnout, with the Lib-Dems fading and the core Labour vote demoralized.
But still the opinion polls show the Conservatives a mere five points ahead.
From this side of the ocean, it is sobering to see how the Conservative Party is Britain is hobbled by the lack of a conservative movement. In the United States, the election of liberal Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 was checked two years later by a stunning Republican takeover of Congress. In 2008, the election of left-liberal Democrat Barack Obama provoked within weeks a movement of rejection which optimists are already predicting will outshine the results of 1994.
After thirteen years of Labour failure, a majority of British voters still leans to the left.
Without a conservative movement, the Conservative Party is a minority, top-down affair, a cadre of political elites and think-tanks trying to dodge the next lurch-to-the-right sucker-punch from the liberal elite and the BBC. There's no talk radio and no Fox News to cover its back.
Over the last few weeks, David Cameron's Conservative Party has deluged the British voters with plans for school reform, welfare reform, immigration limits, a "Big Society" devolution of power from the center, and more. Yet Cameron remains defined by his opponents as an untrustworthy salesman who talks in generalities.
If elected, Cameron will need all his reputed sales skills, for the next government must hack away at spending in a way that will make "Tory Cuts" seem like a sick joke.
If he can persuade the British people to take the coming spending cuts with a smile, then he will be more than a salesman. He will be a magician.