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Wythenshawe Will Make It Even Harder For Cameron To Persuade His Own MPs To Follow Him

Last Updated: Friday, February 14th, 2014

David Cameron says he will listen to the “signal” sent by voters in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election. Here are two of the things he will hear.

The first point people in Wythenshawe are making is that unlike the Lib Dems (who lost their deposit), Labour is indestructible. Or to put it another way: it will take more than an unattractive leader to wreck the Labour party. A substantial body of voters still want that party to exist, because however unappealing and inept they find its leader, they think its heart is in the right place.

The same lesson was taught on a much larger scale by the 2010 general election. People did not, generally speaking, think much of Gordon Brown, but many of them were still prepared to vote Labour. As Lord Ashcroft pointed out in Minority Verdict, his account of that election, Tory attacks on Brown did nothing to bring Labour voters over to the Conservatives.

So in the run-up to the 2015 general election, attacks on Ed Miliband will be of no value for the Tories. Voters do not wish to be told what to think about him by the Conservatives. They already know what they think about him, and a substantial number of them nevertheless intend to vote Labour.

What will be required in 2015 – and what the Tories failed to provide in 2010 – will be a strong account of the things which a Conservative government would do better than Labour. In Wythenshawe, the Tories promised to “fix local potholes”: something there was no reason to suppose they would be any better at than Labour. As my colleague Mark Wallace has pointed out for ConHome, this was “a shockingly pedestrian and unambitious message”.

The second point to emerge from Wythenshawe is that UKIP is still a serious problem for the Conservatives. It has established itself as the preferred party of protest, and especially of those protesters who yearn to believe that it is possible to return to England as it was in the 1950s.

Admittedly the biggest protest in Wythenshawe was made by voters who stayed at home: a natural course of action, or inaction, when you have come to feel deeply disgusted by all politicians.

And one should also admit that a substantial number of Labour voters are social conservatives who are charmed by the idea of the 1950s. When Brown spoke of his support for “hard-working families”, he was trying to convince members of the white working class that they could rely on him to uphold their interests.

But the white working class is not what it was: the work in heavy industry which its members did has vanished, and the socially conservative trade unions which were its voice in politics have been blown to smithereens.

Explicit support for the 1950s is nowadays much more likely to be found among Conservative activists and voters who hanker for the to them golden age before mass immigration, before the collapse of the traditional family, before the rise of the progressive society of the 1960s and before the European Union had begun to undermine our national institutions and threaten the very existence of our nation state.

These activists and voters form UKIP’s core. In happier times, if Nigel Farage were to have had a career in politics, it would have been as a Conservative MP. In 1978, at the age of 14, he actually joined the Conservative Party, the day after hearing an inspiring speech by Sir Keith Joseph, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest supporters.

From a cultural point of view, Thatcher was quite obviously a pre-1960s person. She reassured respectable people, wearing respectable clothes of a 1950s type – the blazer, the regimental tie, or for women a string of pearls and a sensible dress or tweed jacket and skirt – that she was on their side. Her own mother had said, “Never leave the house looking untidy”, and she never did.

Many of these cultural conservatives have now fled in dismay to UKIP. In Wythenshawe, there were enough of this kind of voter to knock the Tories into third place, but nothing like enough to threaten Labour’s dominance. As Paul Goodman has pointed out on ConHome, there is now an unholy alliance between Farage and Miliband which is damaging the Tories.

What is Cameron to do about this? By supporting causes like gay marriage, he has shown that he is not a “back to the 1950s” person. He is a moderniser.

Cameron’s only option is to go forward: to show that he is more progressive than Labour, and better able to cope with modern conditions, both economic and cultural. If he can persuade enough voters to follow him, he will be fine.

But Wythenshawe shows that is a big “if”. So one of the likely consequences of this by-election will be to make it even harder for Cameron to persuade his own MPs to follow him, let alone anyone else.

By Andrew Gimson

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Mel Stride MP: In most important ways, UKIP’s more like Labour than the Conservatives  ‘The key messages here are that, just like Labour, UKIP is a fiscally irresponsible party whose policies do not add up, and would threaten our hard-won recovery.  UKIP’s 2010 election manifesto (albeit that Nigel Farage claims that he never knew what was in it and says he has torn it up anyway) contained a whopping £120 billion of uncosted pledges. Their plans would have meant spending an extra £30 billion a year more in total while simultaneously cutting taxes. Not so much a long-term plan as another load of Balls. We must also point up all instances in which UKIP supports Labour at the local level – something that should send a positive cue to Labour supporters whilst cutting through with Conservative-leaning UKIP supporters. I was powerfully reminded of this latter point when I addressed my own association on the UKIP threat. My comments about what we were doing on immigration and the EU were listened to in attentive silence – but when I mentioned that UKIP is propping-up a Labour-led administration in Norfolk hackles were acutely raised.’ http://bit.ly/1gg62F9

Mark Wallace: Never again can money be no object  ‘On Tuesday, David Cameron declared that “money is no object” in the response to the flooding… “Money is no object” is a symptom of the Conservative Party’s continued failure to realise the scale of the problem we face as a nation. Austerity is for life, not just for crises. We must not simply return to splurging money once growth is back, and we must not allow Labour any chance to pretend the war on government waste can end once times are good again. All politicians, and Conservatives in particular, must wean themselves off the idea that promising to spend money is an acceptable way to buy quick, positive headlines. That’s the junk food of campaigning – a second on the lips, a lifetime on the hips of the weighty state. This is why my heart sank when I heard those words: “Money is no object”. Never again should anyone claim that to be true.’ http://bit.ly/1gg7gQO

Martin Parsons: Ministers should decide flood protection – not the Environment Agency   ‘One of the primary justifications for quangos is that they make technical rather than political decisions. However, as the agency’s recent statements on East Anglia and the Somerset Levels clearly illustrate, many of the decisions it has made over the last few years have in fact been, in the broadest sense of the term, political rather than simply technical. As a quango, the agency is funded by government, but not directly controlled by ministers. In other words, ministers can say to the agency: “We really think you should dredge the rivers draining the Somerset Levels urgently”, but they cannot actually order them to do so. That is why it has been such an appalling dereliction of duty for Chris Smith, the former Labour cabinet minister who is now the agency’s chairman, to refuse to visit the Somerset Levels for five weeks before, while allowing Owen Paterson and DEFRA, which fund the agency, to take the blame.’ http://bit.ly/1ouLRal

Paul Goodman: Paterson is seeing more clearly with one eye than some of his critics are doing with two  ‘The details may be obscure, but their drift is clear: policy is being driven back towards what Paterson wanted in the first place.  That’s to say, the Environment Agency will stay in place, as will Smith, at least for the time being.  Ministers will thus be as nice to it as possible, because they’re reliant on it to deal with the flooding. There will be more dredging – but it is not a cure-all for flooding everywhere in Britain, the position that Paterson has taken from the start.  He may or may not have projected his approach as effectively as Downing Street would wish, but no Cabinet member should be ridiculed by a colleague as the Environment Secretary is being this morning.’ http://bit.ly/1mgnNJN

Andrew Gimson: The Tory case for all-women shortlists   ‘Within a few years the Tory Party will almost certainly have adopted all-women shortlists to select parliamentary candidates. Opinion is changing at great speed on this issue, at least among those Tories who have given any thought to it… No one knows more about this subject than Anne Jenkin (now Lady Jenkin of Kennington)…Jenkin recognises the danger that the Conservatives will have fewer women MPs after May 2015, and insists that something will have to be done if this happens: “If we end up with fewer women MPs after the election I think the Conservative Party should be prepared to look at all the options and consider more radical measures, including all-women selections. Complacency isn’t an option.”http://bit.ly/MS2gGU

By Andrew Gimson

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