Cameron’s efforts to change the image of the Conservative Party have abjectly failed.
At the time of writing, the Tories were languishing around 30 percent in the polls. This could normally be written off a typical mid-tem blues, especially with a struggling economy. But the main opposition party isn’t benefitting, consistently struggling to take advantage of the government’s difficulties. Many voters still blame Labour for much of the economic mess, and the current leadership performs poorly in the polls. If anything, the Tories should be taking advantage of Labour weakness.
The Tories aren’t doing badly because Labour are doing well. They’re managing to do badly all by themselves.
The lack of a noticeable economic recovery will be large source of Tory woes. But there is more too it than that, there is something deeper. The Tories are struggling to get their vision, their message across. In politico speak, they’re failing to establish a narrative. And they are failing to do this because they are slap bang in the middle of a self inflicted identity crisis.
David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party not because the members had suddenly decided en masse to save the planet or adopt a hoodie wearing immigrant. Rather, they wanted to get elected, and they saw what Blair had done with Labour and thought they’d have a slice of that pie.
So what went wrong? Why did Blair win two comfortable victories, while Dave couldn’t manage one against the toxic Brown administration?
Conversely, the Tory re-brand both went too far… and not far enough.
It went too far because it made the mistake of taking the Centre-Right vote for granted. When the rebranding was being dreamed up, UKIP were a sideshow. Most people had only vaguely heard of them. They were an annoyance in the European Elections, sure, but nothing close to being a threat. But times changed. The Euro Crisis put Europe front and centre in people’s minds. Add to that the unfortunate fact that during hard times people turn on immigrants and those on benefits, and its easy to see why UKIP suddenly started looking the Tory party of old to many Right-Wing Tories. Many grassroots Tories grudgingly went along with the rebrand because there was simply no alternative. But then UKIP started making all the right kind of noises on defence, international aid, the green agenda, immigration, crime and tax. Many traditional Tory voters discovered that their loyalty was to their values and principles, not a party.
Tory strategists assumed the Centre Right vote was and would always be theirs. They were wrong.
But in spite of this, there are enough hardliners still in the Tory party to undermine the rebranding from within. Note the rebellions on Europe, equal marriage and House of Lords reform. These are all issues which the new progressive Tories should be romping home with. But for Cameron it’s increasingly difficult to keep his backbenchers on message. This gets noticed, and not in a good way.
The people the rebranding was meant to attract simply don’t believe it’s sincere.
Eastleigh was a perfect example of the failure of the Tory rebrand. The Hampshire seat was precisely the audience the Tory rebrand was supposed to attract; cautiously socially liberal on most subjects, but with enough fiscal conservatism to keep them wary of Labour. It’s that sort of seat the Tories need if they stand any chance of winning in 2015. Yet the Tory candidate came a humiliating third, and not even a close third either. The candidate wasn’t great, but the Conservatives lacked a clear message going into it. Belatedly they tried to out-UKIP UKIP by playing on immigration fears in the area, but that ground had already been claimed by the purple team. The Tory campaign in Eastleigh never got going at least in part because they were trading on a name, relying on the strength of the brand in lieu of a clear narrative and vision.
Simply turning up with a blue rosette just doesn’t cut it anymore, especially when nobody really knows what that means.
It was said that whoever won the General Election in 2010 would lose in 2015, so unpopular would be the decisions that would have to be made. But even with a Labour government in 2015, the Tories are still going to have to decide what they want to be. UKIP won’t challenge the Tories for the leadership of the Centre Right, but they aren’t going away either. But the strategy of targeting an already crowded middle ground isn’t going to even begin to work if neither voters nor Tories themselves aren’t buying into it.