Monday, November 24, 2014

How Did the Tories Go So Wrong?

By John O’Sullivan
Okay, if UKIP’s victory in the Rochester and Strood by-election last week in the U.K. is a very big deal, as I argued here last Saturday, how did it happen? How did a small fringe party get to the point of defeating the governing Tories in the second of two “safe seats” while leaving the main opposition party at the starting point?
The short answer is that Tory leader David Cameron is the father of UKIP (though the paternity is disputed). The scientific evidence supporting this charge was laid out on NRO eight years ago here. Below is an extract from the article:
A smaller group of modernizers, perhaps including Cameron himself, see the new Tory leader deliberately dissing the party’s right-wing and traditionalist supporters in order to win over more simpatico Lib-Dem voters. . . .  But there are obvious problems with this strategy — notably, that even today there are many more Tory voters than Lib-Dems. . . . Nor do the dissed Tories lack somewhere to go. They could stay at home, as about 12 percent of the electorate, including many pre-Major Tories, have done in the last three elections. Otherwise, the UK Independence party, the British National party — even the Labour party under the new flag-waving Gordon Brown — would all welcome them. Perhaps the best criticism of this strategy came from a French Gaullist: “Cameron is trying to create the very division of the Right that has been the biggest obstacle to French conservatives since Mitterrand deliberately fostered the rise of the National Front.” 
The same article, minus the last sentence, which was cut for reasons of space, also appeared in the Financial Times.
Plainly this strategy, advanced by the soi-disant Tory modernizers, has not worked out very well. And, naturally enough, I have the very best of reasons for arguing that this failure was predictable — viz., I predicted it. But why did it fail? And if its failure was predictable, why was it adopted by the Cameroons?
It was adopted because the Cameron modernizers explained the Tory defeats from 1997 to 2005 as the result of cultural changes in the U.K. that had moved the political center ground to the Left where they believed elections are won or lost. That view was also held by most members of Britain’s political class, including the media commentariat and those aspiring young Tories who see the road to power as being from college to political researcher to senior bag-carrier for Cabinet Minister to election to the House of Commons etc., etc., never deviating into a private-sector job. This new orthodoxy dictated that the Tories should move away from stressing traditional conservative arguments — defined as “banging on about immigration and Europe” — and embrace more progressive ones such as climate change and foreign aid. Getting rid of embarrassingly reactionary right-wingers in order to appeal to center-ground liberal voters was a key, if extreme, element in this strategy.
Now, there are many things wrong with this broad approach. To start with, it is solipsistic — it assumes that elections are all about you. In reality the Tories had lost the previous three elections mainly because Tony Blair was dazzling the British people with his New Labour flim-flam act. He was also dazzling the Tory leadership, which contained several outright groupies, including Cameron who saw himself as the “heir to Blair.” Second, without realizing the consequences, the Tories embraced a broad New Labour outlook economically as well as culturally, even promising to adopt Chancellor Gordon Brown’s budgetary strategy in order to ward off suggestions that they might cut public spending. Accordingly, when the roof fell in with the 2008 crash, they were unable to claim credit for foresight and shared the odium of economic collapse with New Labour. And, finally, whatever the complexities of “re-branding,” it made no sense to begin an exercise in expanding the Tory party’s market share by deliberately driving away existing customers.
All these mistakes are minor, however, compared with the central error of a political strategy built around the concept of the center-ground in the conditions of 2006–14. Not that a center-ground strategy is always wrong. When you have a pure or almost-pure two-party system, as in the U.S., it is usually the right general approach. Each of the two parties aims its message at the median voter who is assumed to be the least ideological one. Voters to the left and right of the center can either vote for “theirs” or stay home. But that was not the situation in British politics in 2006 and following. The 2010 election had three major parties with public support between 20 and 40 percent, and several other parties, including the Scottish National Party and UKIP, with support between about 3 and 6 percent. And when the system is a multi-party system, as public-choice theorists such as the recently deceased Gordon Tullock have demonstrated, a political party will obtain its maximum possible vote not by aiming a diluted message at the median voter but by calculating at what point on the electoral map it will lose fewest center votes and gain most of its “natural” supporters.
The mathematical logic underlying these calculations in the case of the 2010 election (and other aspects of psephology) is fully worked out in the study Too Nice to be Tories? by Anthony Scholefield and Gerald Frost, (Futurus, London 2014.) It should be studied by anyone seeking to understand what went wrong. But the point to be made here is that the Tories decided to fish for votes in the center where they had three or four rivals (Liberal Democrats, Greens, Labour itself) for the votes of suspicious or unsympathetic electors rather than to the right where it had one weak rival (UKIP) for naturally conservative constituencies. As a result UKIP won 3.1 percent of the national vote, depriving the Tories of enough seats to win an outright parliamentary majority and sentencing them to work in a Coalition with the Lib-Dems, to support Lib-Dem policies on key issues such as European integration, and thus to dilute further their appeal to conservative voters.
All this would have been true if the Tories had accurately mapped out exactly where the center was located on the political spectrum. What made matters even worse for them, however, was that they took for granted the political spectrum that was handed to them by political commentators. And that was a mistake. For, as I wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times a few years back, in an American context:
There are two political spectrums in America today — an elite spectrum and a popular spectrum.
The elite spectrum has the Democrats in the center, the voters on the center-right, and the Republicans on the far right. No one ever outlines this structure of opinion as clearly and explicitly as that. But it is regularly implied by the establishment media or centrist pundits in the course of their commentaries.
The popular spectrum of political opinion, however, has the Democrats and liberal elites on the left, the Republicans in the middle, and the voters further out to their right.
So not only did the Tories pitch their appeal to the center when they should have moved rightwards, even if slightly, but they located the center farther left than it was in reality. They also focused on issues that attracted people who were never going to vote for them. Still worse, they focused on issues that repelled those voters who might have voted for them — and often wanted to be given a reason for doing so. Naturally enough, the media never alerted them to this succession of mistakes because they shared the assumptions that had led up to them. So the modernizers were constantly assured by The Economist, the Financial Times (except for one far-sighted article), the Guardian, the BBC, and the rest that they were headed along the right path.
The gradual relentless rise of UKIP should have told them something was wrong. Until the Clacton and Rochester and Strood by-election victories, however, they didn’t really take UKIP seriously as a long-term threat. It was seen as a transient protest. The media encouraged that too, arguing that it would all be different in a general election.
What the general election next May now looks like producing will be the story in my next installment.

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