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Dale’s Diary: It’s a Tory masterclass… how to lose an election

Dale’s Diary: It’s a Tory masterclass… how to lose an election

🕔13.Apr 2015

It is, as you might expect from Britain’s oldest and arguably most successful political party, a masterclass. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the campaign so far is showing every sign of being a masterclass in how not to win an election.

Opinion polls are very slowly ticking towards a Labour lead, helped no doubt by disagreeable incidents such as the very personal attack on Ed Miliband by the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon who suggested that since the Labour leader had stabbed his brother in the back to get the job he would also stab Britain in the back when it came to renewing Trident.

Mr Fallon, it would appear, sees nothing wrong with this kind of insult. No doubt he takes the view that the means justify the end and if you have to play the man rather than the ball, so be it.

There is, though, no sign that Mr Fallon’s attack has borne any electoral advantage for the Tories.

Nor would it appear that the prime minister’s pledge to abolish inheritance tax on estates worth up to £1 million is having much impact. This might play well in Surrey, but the Tories hardly need to campaign for votes there. In much of the Midlands the notion of property and savings totalling £1 million is as fantastic as a capped £1.2 million pension fund – these are figures that simply mean nothing to most people now and will not do so in the future.

Not much has been heard so far from Theresa May, the Home Secretary and one of the Tories’ best performers. This may be because any public appearance by Mrs May inevitably invites media questions about whether she will be a candidate to become the next Conservative leader. Her relatively low profile may also be connected with a famous speech she delivered 13 years ago as Conservative party chairman when she described the Tories as “the nasty party”.

Here is what Mrs May said back then: “There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party.”

Public perception in 2002 broadly saw the Tories as a party for the rich, predominantly businessmen, and lacking in concern for the socially disadvantaged as well as gay and ethnic minorities.

The first question I would ask Mrs May in the unlikely event of being given the chance to do so would be whether she thinks the Conservatives under David Cameron have done enough to shake off the ‘nasty’ tag.

It is worth considering the latest detailed research by opinion pollster Lord Ashcroft, who is a Conservative. Taking samples of voters far higher than any other survey, Ashcroft says the election campaign is having little or no impact on public perception and that both Labour and the Conservatives remain deep into their comfort zones – effectively shoring up their core vote.

Asked what they most disliked about the Conservative party, Ashcroft detected a familiar theme: many respondents said they felt the Tories favoured the rich. Ashcroft notes: “The overall picture remains as it has been throughout the parliament: the Conservatives lead on willingness to take tough decisions for the long term, competence, and (by a much slenderer margin) clarity and reliability. Labour remain ahead when it comes to values, motivation, standing for fairness and being on the side of ordinary voters.

At the same time, the Tories keep their lead on most economic issues and welfare reform, while Labour are more trusted on public services and the cost of living.

As far as the Tories are concerned, the campaign is about competence and leadership, which is why they talk about economic recovery and the difference between Cameron and Miliband.

Labour wants the election to be about values, which is why they talk about the NHS and non-doms

Ashcroft’s focus groups quizzed up to 8,000 people, a huge undertaking. The message that came back was clear – neither Labour nor the Conservatives are doing enough to alter the perception that voters already have about them.

They cannot change in four weeks what they have been unable or unwilling to change in five years. In other words, the parties are trapped by their failure to deal with their longstanding problems while they had a chance.

Lord Ashcroft concludes that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are likely to break into the 38 per cent-plus mark that would deliver an overall majority in the House of Commons.

The chances of Mr Cameron continuing as prime minister or Mr Miliband taking over after May 7 rest entirely on other events. Can the Tories pick up a vital 21 Lib Dem seats in the south-west? Will the SNP annihilate Labour in Scotland? Will UKIP take enough Tory votes to gift Labour a victory?

As much as anything about an election can be predicted, it seems certain that the impact of ‘other parties’ on this occasion will be a crucial factor in deciding who gets to Downing Street.

For the Tories to have any chance of winning a majority, according to Ashcroft, they must address the notion among many voters that the Conservatives “are not on their side” and “are not to be trusted with public services like the NHS”. George Osborne’s shifty performance in a television interview over the weekend when he failed to give a proper answer when asked where an additional £8 billion for the NHS would come from has not helped the Conservatives. Ashcroft adds:

The Tories now score no better on these measures than they did at the last election. If too many voters see the Tories as the nasty party, they seem unlikely to win anybody over by ramping up the attacks on Miliband.

Equally, Labour is failing to recruit new voters in sufficient numbers to put Mr Miliband in power. Ashcroft says:

In the eyes of many voters who would be quite willing to see the back of the Tories, Labour never seemed to learn the right lessons from what went wrong when they were last in government. People wonder whether an unrepentant party can be trusted with the public finances, and their first question about otherwise attractive Labour proposals is ‘where’s the money coming from?’

Uniquely in modern elections, rapidly improving perceptions about the strength of the economy are not giving the Government a boost because too many voters regard the Conservatives as “not being on our side”. Ashcroft found this particularly to be the case as far as Tory defectors to UKIP are concerned who were more likely than average to think the economy was improving and that they would benefit, but felt the UKIP rather than the Tories are “on the side of people like me”.

The picture then  is of the two old parties, neither of whom have learned the lessons of the past, under threat from upstart newcomers. It all points to a dramatic finale on May 7.

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