Not easily, according to leading Conservative commentators. At an event hosted by Tim Montgomerie, Editor of ConservativeHome, the grassroots Conservative blog at the headquarters of The Taxpayer’s alliance, the mood was difficult to pin down.
Overall, the consensus saw many difficult challenges ahead. Matthew Elliot, co-founder of The Taxpayer’s Alliance asserted that ‘things can be turned around, if the government makes the necessary changes’.
Stephan Shakespeare, founder of pollster YouGov and former Conservative candidate, kicked off the proceedings and set the tone by bluntly saying that it will be very hard for the Tories to win an absolute majority at the next General Election in 2015. He pointed out that the two main parties vote share has declined from almost 82% in 1951 to 74% in 1992 and 65% in 2012.
As the larger parties’ share of the vote has dropped, support for smaller parties has increased every year. These factors make it very difficult for the Conservatives to secure an outright majority, regardless of what they do. This is echoed by Survation’s recent polling, which have found a gradual increase in support for UKIP since 2010, with the party now rivalling the Liberal Democrats for third place in the polls.
However, Shakespeare offered a glimmer of hope, pointing out that the upcoming boundary changes will benefit the Conservatives over and above any other party. He encouraged the party not to focus on superficial re-positioning but aim to establish trust on the economy, which he argued is the main factor determining if and how people vote. If people believe that the Tories are prepared to take difficult decisions, with a view to the long-term, they will reward them, he said. It may be of some comfort to him, then, that Survation found last month that the public still trust David Cameron more than Ed Miliband on the economy, by 34% to 26%, although George Osborne’s rating on the economy among the public when compared to Ed Balls is uncomfortably within the margin of error.
Next to speak was Chris Grayling MP, Minister for Employment, who had a rather more cheerful message. Once he’d got a few obvious points out of the way- the Tories goal is to win an absolute majority, the coalition is working well, and so on, he doled out his advice for what the Conservatives can do in the run up to 2015. He said ‘we must keep a level head, we’re only in the second year of a five year term and we’re living through terrible financial times’. ‘We’re still above 30% in the polls’ he added, before reassuring the assembled grassroots Tories by saying ‘we don’t need to win the argument until 2015’.
The Minister then pointed to the example of Bill Clinton, saying that the Conservatives should take the lesson from him that you need your core vote and must not let your natural support slip away. He then said that the Tories need to ‘talk about issues that really matter to people, such as the cost of living’ and should avoid ‘long, detailed conversations about Europe’. In our view this may be difficult, given the fragile state of the Eurozone and calls from top Labour politicians for an “in out” referendum on the EU.
Grayling may have a good point regarding the importance of retaining the Tories’ natural supporters. In a survey comparing the popularity of current “government policy” to those policies of Conservative backbencher Douglas Carswell, Survation recently found a solid level of support for more traditional Tory policies such as restricting immigration (63% of respondents said they would like immigration to be capped, including from EU countries, while 37% would like to see ‘some further restriction from outside the EU’). There was also significant support for longer prison sentences for hardened criminals (75% of those surveyed signalled support for this policy), suggesting that there may be areas where they could afford to adopt a more traditionally Conservative line. In addition, 69% of respondents said that they would like ‘a straight In/Out referendum’ on the UK’s EU membership.
Unsurprisingly perhaps for an Employment Minister, he finished by emphasising the importance of jobs, saying that it is a topic that ‘resonates everywhere’ and that the government should pursue the line that ‘if it costs jobs, we shouldn’t be doing it’.
Indeed, the Coalition do appear to be listening on UK jobs and infrastructure. A Survation poll in South Derbyshire, and Derby North in August 2011 found huge cross-party support for the retention of train manufacturing at the Bombardier plant in Derby and of concern to the Government – 60% of Conservative 2010 voters agreed with the statement “The Government are not committed to British industry”. As a consequence of the Bombardier/Siemens decision, the similarly-structured (also by the Labour government) Crossrail contract decision was delayed for a year. The government now seem keen to work on future industrial contracts to avoid a repetition of the damaging legacy of Labour’s PFI structured tenders which can disadvantage British-based bids.
The last speaker was Matthew Elliott, co-founder of the Taxpayers Alliance and seasoned campaigner, who asserted that ‘the wider political battlefield is biased against the Tories’ before calling on the Conservatives to ‘rebalance the political landscape’. He said that boundary changes need to take place and that the government should crack down on ‘taxpayer funded trade unionists’. He asserted that ‘the trade union movement has four times the spending power of right wing groups’ and criticised Labour for adopting a policy of public sector patronage by putting ‘their’ people in top public sector positions.
Trade unions receiving public funds to conduct political campaigns are an attractive target to the Conservative grassroots. However, opinion is fairly evenly divided over the influence of the trade unions on Labour, with 44% saying that their influence is ‘disproportionate’ versus 38% who say that it is ‘proportionate’. Of Conservative 2010 voters, a significant 61 to 28 percent consider their influence disproportionate.
Criticising Labour for parachuting supporters into top jobs, Elliott suggested that the Conservatives should respond by doing the same in return. He echoed Boris Johnson in calling for the next Director General of the BBC to be a Conservative- specifically David Elstein, who he said is ‘on our side’. He added that the Head of the Charities Commission will step down in July, suggesting that this is another position that should be ‘targeted’ by the Tories.
Finally, Elliott called on the government to ‘make more political appointees’ and improve their political and public relations team. He said that ‘all governments are buffeted by events’ and but “top class political operations” are essential.
He further acknowledged that while the situation is ‘pretty bleak for the Tories at the moment’ and that they are ‘stuck in a rut’, ‘things can be turned around, if the government makes the necessary changes’.
By Charlotte Jee and Damian Lyons Lowe
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