Last Updated: Monday, November 19th, 2012
America’s culture wars – so integral to Barrack Obama’s re-election – seem very distant, perhaps because the two countries are separated by more than a common language (as the old joke has it). There is no equivalent in Britain of the religious right. Our conservative intellectual movement is far smaller. The media is disproportionately massed in one city, London. The United Kingdom remains a centralised country – one of the reasons why turnout in the Police Commissioner elections yesterday was so low. The United States is a localist one, as its very name suggests: it is a federation of states. It is also a country built from the bottom-up, with a built-in suspicion of government itself. The United Kingdom, by contrast, was originally run from the top-down. And so on.
Today’s Corby by-election statistics, like the Police Commissioner results, will not be repeated at the next general election, there or elsewhere. Turnout, however low by comparison with predecessor polls 20 years ago, will be far higher than yesterday. Almost certainly, UKIP will win no seats. Conservative supporters will come out to vote, unlike yesterday, and some former Conservative supporters who have deserted the party will return, unlike yesterday. Unlike yesterday, too, Ed Miliband will be under serious media pressure. There will even be a rise, albeit perhaps a very modest one, in the Liberal Democrat vote. Corby will probably stay Labour – but its new MP won’t be able to take the seat for granted.
None the less, David Cameron faces a problem unique to any Conservative leader I can think of – although John Major faced an early warning of it in the form of Sir James Goldsmith’s referendum party. Namely, he is under attack from both left and right – from Miliband and Nigel Farage of UKIP, in what political commentators, harking back to a famous Vicky cartoon, tend to call “a Hitler-Stalin pact”. Neither Robert Peel nor Arthur Balfour nor Andrew Bonar Law, leaders of the party during previous divisions over freed trade and protection, faced a pincer movement from right and left. UKIP are now polling at somewhere above 5% and below 10%, rivaling the Liberal Democrats for third place. And, as Lord Ashcroft’s polling has demonstrated, they are now winning support disproportionately from former Tory voters.
The nightmare prospect for Cameron is that UKIP take enough support from his party in marginal seats to hand Miliband, whose electoral advantage has been cemented by the collapse of the boundary review, a Commons victory that, however flattering to Labour’s support, is all too real. And while Britain’s right is divided, its left is united. The Greens and Respect have simply not emerged as a challenger to Miliband, and the fact of coalition has driven left-leaning Liberal Democrat voters into his arms. A conventional Conservative answer to UKIP is an EU renegotiation and referendum plan – even an In-Out referendum; even, perhaps, a pact – that would stem the flow of votes to UKIP before next year’s European elections, in which the party will, very likely, top the poll.
Well, such a plan would certainly do Cameron no harm, and would probably do him some good. But the hard fact established by research – though resisted by some of UKIP’s EU-fixated activists and supporters – is that anti-EU sentiment is only part of the reason for the party’s advance. UKIP voters – as opposed to its activists – are angry, marginalised and anti-politics: the EU is not the only, or even the main, reason for them casting their votes for Mr Farage’s party. The UKIP leader seems to recognise this – as his plan to shorten the party’s name and ditch its logo, and his drive to oppose gay marriage and support grammar schools indicates (not to mention UKIP’s earlier tilt at Islamist extremism). He is marketing his party as “the Conservative Party you used to vote for”.
America’s culture wars certainly have a religious flavour that Britain lacks: the resistance to gay marriage in Britain, for example, is less faith-based and more generation-driven. But isn’t there a rough likeness between UKIP and parts of the Tory right on the one hand, and the transatlantic tea party movement on the other? The electoral base of both is elderly, white, male and non-urban in countries that are increasingly – though in different ways – seeing a growth of the number of ethnic minority members, the continuing advance of women, and cultural change driven by city-dwellers. And the emotional driver of both is rage – inflamed by what David Frum, the disillusioned Republican intellectual, has called “the right-wing entertainment industry”.
Sure, older voters, like younger ones, are living through economic hard times. But compared to those younger ones, most are relatively well-off. Isn’t their anger driven as much by culture as economics, if not even more so? And if the reason for it could be summed up in a sentence, wouldn’t it be something to do with the past seeming better, to them, than the future – a past in which their respective countries were more white and more male, less economically challenged and less socially diverse? If so, the Conservatives face the prospect of becoming Britain’s natural party of opposition – the same fate that has overtaken the Republicans in American Presidential elections. Cameron is the author of many of his own problems. But even a modern Thatcher would struggle with a landscape changed so much since her glory days of the 1980s as to be almost unrecognisable.
By Paul Goodman
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME
Dr Philip Lee MP: China may be big – but it has big, big problems
“Once again, perceived strengths are really weaknesses and vice versa. Of course, it is foolish to think that the Chinese are incapable of innovation. Just ask your nearest cyber security expert. No, the Chinese are resourceful and driven. Thereʼs much more to them than stuffed toys and counterfeit DVDʼs. But equally, it is dangerous to over-estimate their capabilities, too. As is often the case in history, we will doubtless later find that they could do some of the things we thought they couldn’t and not all of the things we thought they could. I believe that the real threat from this vast country derives from its vulnerability.” Read more: http://is.gd/JR1sdP
The Deep End: A big society or a bankrupt NHS – the choice is ours. Boles was wrong to castigate Phillip Blond: “Let’s leave aside the reality that a “mix of social conservatism and economic communitarianism” is a pretty good description of voter values in “relatively low income, Midlands and northern towns.” Let’s ignore the fact that Blond defined the Conservative mission as creating “a capitalism that works for the poor”, when the Cameroons were still chasing those “university-educated professionals in Cambridge”. Let’s even move on from the blindingly obvious truth that turning rhetoric into reality is the job of government ministers, not think tank directors. Instead of all of that, let’s remind ourselves that what used to be the central idea of Cameronism – the big society – is still of central importance to the future of our nation.” Read more: http://is.gd/JuCxPc
Paul Goodman: Why low turnout in tomorrow’s police commissioner elections won’t matter: “Some of the new Police Commissioners will, against expectation and apparently all the odds, travel diligently up and down their police authority areas listening to voter concerns.They will have an incentive, as Chief Constables do not, to draw up their police and crime plans with voters in mind – to listen to local communities who demand, say, more police on the beat, but also to explain why everywhere can’t have everything at once…So it doesn’t matter if tommorow’s turnout is derisory. The real test will be when the next set of police commissioner elections come around, and voters have begun to get a sense of what police commissioners have – or have not – done for the people on whose behalf they were elected. Read more: http://is.gd/bcxsqI
Andrew Lilico: Inflation is too high and switching from QE to outright money-printing ain’t gonna help: “Essentially by taking the interest, the government is essentially forgiving a portion of the real value of its own loans. There’s a case for that – Lord Turner made it a few weeks’ back. But if that’s what’s to be done it would be much better if it were done explicitly, by saying “We shall forgive £xbn” and arguing the case for it, not via accounting legerdemain. Inflation has been far above target for a long time, and will go farther above. Moving from QE to outright money-printing at a point when inflation is well above target and cost of living increases are known to be politically toxic is one of the more, as Sir Humphrey might have said, courageous decisions this government has taken.” Read more: http://is.gd/IggoAR
Tim Montgomerie A measly 5% of Britons would vote for an anti-state party and it’s time for all Tories to drop the libertarian language: “To avoid any doubt: I want a smaller state. I want that smaller state because we can’t afford the one we have and dependence on the state often means people aren’t fulfilling their potential… but we have sometimes allowed anti-State rhetoric to consume the rest of our broader message. People out there crave security as much as freedom. They want help from government as much as they want it out of their way. They fear market forces at least much as they revere them. Fellow Conservatives – that is what we are – we are Conservatives, not libertarians. We believe in a limited, targeted, efficient and sometimes strong state. Ours is not an anti-State philosophy and our party must not be perceived as an anti-State party.” Read more: http://is.gd/WFRdjZ
Nadine Dorries MP: I’m in the jungle for one reason – a golden opportunity to communicate with sixteen million people: “I may have to eat a kangaroo’s testicle, but I may also get to talk about a twenty week limit for abortion. I may have to sleep with rats, but I may also get the chance to big up Boris whilst I am at it. It is a publicity gift. MPs are not popular and so I don’t expect to be in the jungle for very long but I hope I can do something to make some people think again. That some of us politicians come from very normal backgrounds and went into politics for reasons of deep belief and principle. Whilst the half term recess is underway, I will be working with rats and snakes in a jungle. It’s not really very different from Westminster after all.” Read more: http://is.gd/LNJDJq
Nadhim Zahawi MP: We need an independent regulator to hold newspaper editors and proprietors to account: “We should remember too that opposition to unaccountable power is a deeply Conservative issue, it’s in our blood. The Tory Party came into being three hundred years ago in opposition to Walpole’s Whig oligarchy, under Thatcher we broke the power of the union barons, and under David Cameron we’re tackling the ‘too big to fail’ blackmail of the banks. Yesterday I and 41 of many colleagues, including ex-ministers and PPSs, published a letter in the Guardian calling for a new system of regulation, one that’s independent of both politicians and the media and guaranteed by statute.” Read more: http://is.gd/Gj9EKt