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Friday 2nd March 2012 | 09:58
British politics has entered a state of flux not seen in a generation. I’ve written previously of how the electoral maths of these changes should favour Labour – with a Liberal Democrat collapse reuniting the progressive vote around Ed Miliband’s party, ending the Conservatives’ single biggest advantage of the past century: a divided left. This clear-cut argument is the centrepiece of ConservativeHome’s ‘Don’t Underestimate Labour’ campaign.
But what if, under the surface, the Conservative Party is on the ascendant? Polls showing David Cameron’s party continuing to be competitive in such a bleak midterm economy have astounded many commentators.
Some have long predicted a generational decline of the Tory Party. Last weekend’s YouGov poll for the Sunday Times told the classic story: Labour led 48%-33% among 25 to 39 year olds, with the Conservatives up 45% to 30% among the over 65s. Prior to the 2001 election, Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant famously quipped that his 238 vote majority had quite literally “died”. Nine years later, he stood a rather more healthy 17,683 votes ahead of his nearest rival.
Proponents of the Tory death theory point to more liberal attitudes on issues like gay rights, particularly among young people – that the very quiet culture war that rumbled through twentieth century Britain had been lost. While not deciding many votes, these issues form a cultural mood music that shape instincts towards a party.
But British Conservatism is no longer, profoundly, about these rigid issues of social morality. David Cameron used his conference speech last autumn to declare that “I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” Through such moves, he inoculates the party brand and moves the debate onto other issues.
A much more significant pillar of modern British conservatism is the desire to ‘end something for nothing culture’, i.e. to take drastic, even harsh, action to tackle welfare dependency – an old-as-the-hills appeal to the vigorous virtues of work. The recent ‘workfare’ furore around removing benefits from the long-term unemployed if they refuse to undertake unpaid work placements is a case in point. While the Left see it as ‘slave labour’, the public seem to view the policy much more favourably. YouGov found 61% of voters were in favour, with just 32% against. Even those who voted Labour at the last election were 48% to 44% supportive. Perhaps most profoundly, younger voters were just as likely as pensioners to back the plans, suggesting a cross-generational conservatism on this crucial issue.
Indeed, the latest British Social Attitudes survey showed that the number of people saying that benefits were too high had risen from 42% in 1999 to 54% in 2010. This may help to explain why ‘the cuts’ have proven far from politically unpopular.
But it’s not simply an attitudinal shift to the Right on welfare issues that may usher in a period of Conservative hegemony, but much shorter-term actions the Conservatives are themselves quietly taking in government. The fact that seat equalisation will disproportionately favour the party has been discussed at length, with most undersized seats appearing in inner-city Labour areas and vast numbers of altered Liberal Democrat seats expected to fall to the Conservatives. However, Liberal Democrat campaigns guru Lord Rennard has raised a perhaps even more significant change: the shift to voluntary electoral registration, which is likely to have a devastating effect on voter registration levels among non-Conservative demographics, just as it does in the USA. If this measure passes, while Conservatives will concentrate on getting their vote out, the focus of the Labour Party will become voter registration. There is even talk of party funding changes, which, while state funding is being ruled out in this parliament, could make it far more difficult for trade unions to donate to the Labour Party.
More important than any of these factors, however, are events north of the border. A number of well-placed Conservative strategists have told me that much as David Cameron does not want to be seen as the Prime Minister who presided over the break-up the Union, the party, as a whole, was highly indifferent to the outcome. Just as Irish independence removed vast numbers of anti-Conservative MPs and presaged a generation of Tory domination, so too would Scottish independence remove over 50 from Westminster. Even ‘devo-max’ would no doubt lead to England-only votes in Westminster, in which the Conservatives would have an in-built majority. And cynics amongst us might think that if we were Conservative strategists, would not one of the best ways of Scottish MPs out of the picture be to send the ever-so-English Cameron and Osborne north of the border to campaign for the Union?
Harold MacMillan is famously rumoured to have declared that the greatest obstacle to political success was “events, dear boy, events”. But for Mr Cameron, they seem to be moving – by accident or by meticulous design – in his favour.
An edited version of this article appears on page 5 and 6 of this week's House magazine.