Friday, May 02, 2008

Blue Dawn?

It would be churlish not to allow David Cameron his day of triumph. He took over a party that looked as if it had become permanently unelectable outside a few privileged enclaves, and has seen it achieve ultimate electable status. 44% of the vote - against the dismal showings of his two rivals - in last night's locals is certainly nothing to be sneered at. Thatcher was getting that sort of percentage in her election winning prime. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, has presided over Labour's worst performance in decades - even lower than Michael Foot's cataclysmic 1983 election. Worse for Brown, he is being increasingly tainted as the John Major of New Labour (see, for example, a comment on the post below). As for Clegg, well, while his party performed well enough in his own city of Sheffield, his inability to take it to a level of support beyond that which the much derided Menzies Campbell obtained hardly suggests a dynamic, frontier grabbing new leadership.

However, Cameron would be well advised not to spend too long on his celebrations. Despite last night, his task is strewn with problems.

First, he must be at least a little nervous about the capability of his new controlling Tory councillors to deliver effective leadership. The Tory party has been haemorhagging members for years now, with the result that too many of their councillors and council candidates are either hugely inexperienced, or represent some of the less attractive aspects of 1980s and 90s conservatism. For the Conservatives to keep Bury, and Southampton et al for more than a year or two will require real drive and discipline on the part of these new leaders.

Second, while Cameron is the first leader since Thatcher to see his party win seats in northern redoubts, they remain far and few between. The great urban breakthrough didn't occur. Margaret Thatcher may have won three elections in a row, but most Tories have never accepted the reality of the long-term damage her leadership did to her own party. The Thatcherite dominance saw the party's representation shrink away from cities and provinces into an insular, rural southern laager. Not only that, but the memory of Thatcherism is strong, and divisive, enough all these years later to still turn people off the idea of voting Tory. Be Labour ever so bad, many voters would never see Toryism as an appropriate alternative.

Third, and this is the Matthew Parris point, how ready is Cameron for government. Really. His policies remain a largely incoherent mix, and his leading spokesmen, with a very few exceptions, seem to be limited, uninspiring people. Winning power, be it locally or, potentially in a couple of years, nationally, will be a triumph for Cameron. Holding power will be far more difficult, and far more crucial. If the next Tory government fails to exercise power effectively and inclusively, it could well damn the Tories into opposition for far longer than 13 years.

2 comments:

D Carnell said...

Very astute, Giles. If only I had listened properly all those years ago I might have learnt a bit more!

From the Labour side of things (I'm quite active these days) it was worse than our worst nightmare. No one thought we would lose that many councillors and we all harboured the belief that when people got to the ballot box Boris would be too unpalletble. We were wrong.

There are two issues for me. The first is problematic and leaves Brown little room for manoeveur. The current economic climate is largely beyond his control. Food prices are rising and the American credit crunch is still being felt. Confidence is low. The markets are wobbly. Unless Brown can somehow turn this around in TWELVE months the end is nigh for this government.

The second is slightly more optimistic. Unlike, say 1979 or 1997, I believe Thursdays vote was still anti-Labour rather than pro-Tory. You've touched on this issue with the "is Cameron ready for govt?" point and I think it is true. Sooner or later he is going to have to come up with some solid policies that stand up to scutiny. It is not enough merely to not be Labour. He still needs a 6% swing merely to have a one seat majority.

If Labour can actually come up with some convincing policies in the next few months and have a mildly radical Queen's speech after the summer, all may not be lost.

The question for Gordon is where does he go? Does he shore up the traditional heartlands which deserted him on Thursday? Or does he try and pander to the middle-class southerners who helped Blair race to power? It's a tricky conundrum but an astute politician should be able to do both.

An interesting few months awaits.

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