Monday, May 07, 2012

France's Left Turn

I think the Daily Mail adds considerably to the jollity of our lives.  This staunch opponent of the euro suddenly finds itself expressing outrage at the possibility that the new leftie in the Elysee might now ruin everything, as its incandescent headline screams this morning!  This, at its most vigorous, is the right-wing mantra today, but the real fear for governments still practising austerity must surely be if the French and Greek abandonments of that programme start to, er, work.  The idea that more government spending might kick start the economy, bring a bit of a boost back to people's spending power and even create more jobs would surely be intolerable in Britain and Germany at the moment.

Otherwise, Francois Hollande's victory could be used as a case study in the triumph of being boring over being charismatic, having a 'partner' rather than a glamorous model wife; it could be used to illustrate the enduring power of France's natural political elite, the 'enarques' (Hollande is another graduate of the hugely influential ENA, unlike Sarkozy, and one of his putative prime ministers, Martine Aubry, is none other than the daughter of Jaques Delors) thus adding to the belief that western politics is becoming too oligarchical (Ferdinand Mount tackles this in his excellent new book, "The New Few"); or it might show us that it is possible for a nation to turn out and vote in large numbers (just over 80%) and require us to work out why on earth we don't. And Hollande might be counting himself a lucky man.  Having been required to watch his then partner, Segolene Royale, assume the socialist candidacy for president last time round, it seems unlikely that he would have taken it this time but for the unfortunate incident that Dominique Strauss-Kahn had with a maid in a New York hotel.  You see, adultery can help people - just not those engaged in the specific act.

Whatever you choose to investigate, the French election has suddenly turned out to be a bit of a game changer, not just for the rejoicing socialists - back in power after a 17 year desert - but for a Europe hit by an ongoing personality crisis.  With Cameron and Merkel racing to the phones (and oh dear, what bad politics it now looks to have been for Cameron to have refused to meet with Hollande in February) the French aren't the only ones wondering how all this will turn out.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Tories' Historic Problem

The Conservative Party returned to form in the wake of the local election results.  The always fragile veneer of unity, that has been cracking regularly pretty well since the last general election, took a few more seismic hits.  Back out of their holes were the right-wing backbenchers and leader writers prescribing another dose of rightism, or “authentic conservatism” to use its current parlance, as a solution to the Tories’ electoral ills.  Most laughable of all was the elevation of Boris Johnson – the one bright spot in the Tories’ election misery – as the champion of this authenticity.  Yes indeed, the Gay Pride marcher, serial adulterer and bike fanatic is, apparently, just the man to return us to those stoical social values of old.  Get thee behind us, evil modernising Dave Cameron and make way for Boris!

Well, Boris’s election victory as the triumph of personality over politics has been well commented on elsewhere – entertainingly by Jerry Hayes on Dale and Company, and perceptively and eloquently by Matthew D’Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph – so the lessons that the mayoral election don’t offer the party are not worth pressing on with any more here.  What is worth looking at, though, if only because it offers us a perspective through which to understand the Tory problems, is the historic problem of Tory election performance.

Go back far enough, to the halcyon days of the 50s and 60s, and the Tory election graph always seemed to be a source of optimism.  Often victorious, certainly nation-encompassing, its occasional blips almost always preparatory to a return to the fold.  This remarkable trend seemed to be further enhanced after Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory, followed by two successive triumphs where she thumped the opposition.  Even John Major, in 1992, carried the party through adverse polls to victory. So what has happened since and where did it start? 

The reality is that the Tory election problem has been a long time coming, and can be traced back to the very point of its triumph, under Margaret Thatcher herself.  What the Thatcher election victories disguised by their scale was the retreat of Toryism across too much of the UK.  The gradual reduction to nothing of Tory representation in the northern cities and the celtic lands moved on apace under her stewardship, leaving the party as essentially the vehicle of the prosperous south and east of England.  Perhaps this was the necessary price for the polarising policies of the eighties, policies which some would arguable were unavoidable if Britain’s decline was to be averted.  But when the party was finally kicked out of government in 1997 many of its members – and certainly the majority of its MPs – refused to recognise the nature of the message being delivered by the electorate.  Ordinary voters had had their fill of Thatcherism.  The Conservative party, however, seemed to have barely got going as it embraced the Thatcherite agenda with even more fervour, turning its light towards Europe and social issues.  

The reason for this misunderstanding was down to the way in which Mrs. Thatcher had been removed.  The coup of 1990 was a rough and ready response to the poll tax problem and the arguably even more serious destabilising of her cabinet over Europe.  After ten years in power, the leader herself was unable to provide any obvious solution to this twin-peaked volcano and was rudely removed, in a way suffered by no Tory leader before her.  The wider electorate were deprived of their chance to deliver a final verdict on the leaderene while the Tory MPs and members could forever after claim – correctly – that she had never suffered an election defeat as leader.

Had Margaret Thatcher been allowed to continue the course of her leadership and take her party into the 1992 (or it might have been 1991) election, the Thatcherite bubble would have been punctured and the Conservatives might just have been able to embark on a proper period of reconstitution, untroubled by the poison of an improper coup.  As it is, too many Conservatives continue to prescribe the wrong medicine at times of electoral vulnerability.  David Cameron managed to get the party as far as he did in 2010 because he had  understood the need to speak to a non-Thatcherite electorate.  Some of that modernising strategy may have thrown up a few red herrings, notably gay marriage, but it remains emphatically the right approach for a party that still needs to prove it can connect to the electorate at large.   It is not even clear that full blown austerity is either the right approach or the one that engenders the confidence of British people.  Somewhere out there is a careful balance of state cutting without economic pinching that may still be what we are seeking for as people try and keep their businesses alive and their spending power stretching. 

Until the Conservative Party truly gets over its Thatcher moment, it will never really start to make the real return it should be seeking to becoming a national party once again.  The Thatcherite agenda is not some sort of holy writ version of ‘authentic conservatism’.  It was a controversial panacea for its time (drawn as much from nostrums of classical liberalism as anything else) which found its place in a pragmatic party of broader principles.  It’s time to embrace the 21st. century. 

Boris, Charisma and an Overblown Fuss Amongst Tories

I do sometimes wonder whether it is a good trend that intelligent and able political minds head into the world of the media, leaving grunt politics to those of a distinctly more mediocre cast.  Thus, in the aftermath of the local elections - key point, a very low turnout all round - we get nonsense in hot air from elected representatives, mainly Tory backbenchers, and some genuinely illuminating commentary from media commentators. 

Tory backbenchers - or at least a noisy few - were amongst the worst offenders.  A lethal combination of them and the right-wing sounding board that is the website Conservative Home served to create the impression of a Tory crisis, echoed now by nearly all media reports and headlined by this morning's Telegraph.  Yet, of course, if this is a crisis (and yes, it was hardly a great day for the Tories) then it is as much about the absolute dis-connection by the average voter from all of the political parties as it is about the present government's failure to instil confidence in their own economic medicine.  Two out of three voters - on average, it was worse in some areas - failed to take the time out required on Thursday to register their verdict on the body politic.  That is a travesty.  At a time of economic depression it cannot be interpreted in any way as expressing some sort of ambient satisfaction with politics.  Far more realistically, it expresses a belief that politicians are not even worth the effort of voting against.  The celebrity  contest in London may have bucked the electoral trend by returning Boris Johnson, but it certainly didn't see any great increase in voter turnout - at 38%, it was as dismal in London as elsewhere.

But of course, the results that we do have were bad for the Tories.  They were worse for the Liberal Democrats, who publicly managed a far more sober and untied front than the hysterical Conservatives (as Andrew Rawnsley noted in his Sunday commentary).  There was plenty of nonsense from Tory circles about the need for a return to 'authentic', right-wing policies (as if there is anything authentically Conservative about the mantra of the classically liberal New Right), even about the possibility that the gay marriage proposals affected their support.  Bilge.  Utter bilge.  It will be worth dealing with the Tory problem in a separate post, but for the moment the vigorous response by former MP Jerry Hayes on Dale and Company to this nonsense can be recommended as an on the money piece.  There was precious little politics involved in Boris' win and plenty of personality; partly the nature of a direct personal contest such as the mayoralty.  There are few lessons for the Tories to take from it, although those few have at least been well laid out by the eloquent pen of Matthew D'Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph.  As well as noting the need for David Cameron to acquire a bit more jollity and sunshine, a la Boris, and a little less of the assumption that he simply deserves to be where he is, D'Ancona also took a well aimed swipe at the bleating tribe of Tory MPs.  I love his comment about elections providing a bit of 'event glamour' that temporarily give otherwise innocuous representatives the right to say anything and have it treated as wisdom.

Elections are the great contests of democracy and deserve prominent coverage.  But when that coverage is reduced to a collective hysteria from those players who should surely have a more intelligent approach, you begin to get a hint as to why the electorate - the viewers - are turning off in such large numbers.