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Clearing the decks

Anthony Scholefield looks at the 2010 election and what it might mean for the Conservatives, independent parties and the voters interested in real change.

Mr. Cameron’s speech on 4th November, withdrawing his policy of offering a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, clears up the political scene.

After Vaclav Klaus signed the Treaty, David Cameron rejected the obvious next move put forward by David Davis, of having a referendum after the general election on a ‘negotiating mandate’ to repatriate the most objectionable items in the EU treaties. Such a mandate would have numerous advantages as outlined by David Davis. It would be clear, transparent and accountable. The people would have their say and the government would have a formidable weapon to force change, rather than being depicted by EU politicians as an obsessive minority. It is necessary to force change and interminable negotiations will not do that.

However, the Cameron policy change flows naturally from his previous strategy. This strategy is set by an incredibly small number of people – less than ten – who make all the decisions. This has the effect that policy and strategy is poorly thought out and the new Cameron proposals have been widely criticized and even ridiculed from all sides as ineffective and meaningless.

Moreover the Tory leadership regards the EU as a non-salient issue when it comes to obtaining votes in a general election to which all their energy is directed. The fixation is on the 20/20 strategy winning over the swing 20 per cent of voters in the swing 20 per cent of constituencies in what the New Statesman calls ‘the stranglehold of a million or so voters in a handful of marginal seats in Middle England’.

More sophisticated observers, such as Kavanagh and Butler in their analysis in The British General Election of 2005, point out ‘There was little correlation between the Conservative share of the vote and the change in the Labour share of the vote’.

Labour’s share of the vote was down by six per cent in 2005, yet the Conservatives only gained 0.5 per cent. For unexplained reasons, Tory strategists believe this trend will not influence voting again.

There are a number of political conclusions to be drawn from these events. It is absolutely clear that in the next Parliament David Cameron will do nothing substantive to alter Britain’s relationship with the EU. He even reiterated in his speech the pledge to get Turkey into the EU. In effect, his performance vindicated Gyles Brandreth’s recommendation of David Cameron for a job with Kenneth Clark in 1994 by telling Clark 'he is one of us' - a liberal Conservative.

There is also the effect on David Cameron’s reputation in general as regards his principles, his competence and his willpower. It is hard to see how his reputation for any of these will be enhanced. Many of those who were hovering on the edge of voting Conservative or voting for an alternative may have drawn some conclusions from this episode, especially on Tory promises to cut immigration and keep taxes down and restore public sector financial discipline.

Some eurosceptic Tory MPs, especially those of the BOO group may maintain principle but the leadership has indicated it will not address the EU issue and, apart from Dan Hannan and Roger Helmer, Tory MPs and MEPs and candidates have gone along with the Cameron volte face.

This episode will give a substantial boost to the long-term trend of the Conservatives shedding votes to minor parties which have grounded themselves on former Tory principles of democracy, patriotism and protecting the interests of the British people. These are UKIP, the BNP, the English Democrats and the Christian Party.

It is often said that the BNP mainly take votes away from Labour. This is quite true but they are also votes which, in the face of disillusionment with Labour, in past elections before the 1990s the Tories would have gained and, indeed, must gain. In 2005 the average vote secured by a UKIP candidate was 3.2 per cent and by the BNP 4.3 per cent. The upward movement was sustained in the Euro elections of 2009 with UKIP gaining 16.5 per cent of the vote and the BNP 6.2 per cent of the vote. UKIP performed very well in the recent Norwich North by-election.

The drivers of discontent with the major parties have not gone away and have indeed been enhanced by the Parliament expenses scandal.

In short, the minor parties seem well placed to be polling an average combined share of 6-8 per cent of the votes in the seats they stand in England with outliers in the ten percent range. With few gains being expected for the Tories in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland and with the Liberals likely to only shed perhaps 15 seats to the Tories, if that, the Tories need to win 100 seats from Labour in England to form a majority.

The minor parties would be well advised to concentrate their resources on these seats. Ten per cent of the vote is certainly sustainable in some seats and these could materially affect the election outcome.

Tory party strategy is committed to a major Labour collapse and the Tories coming through with a majority in what will be a very fragmented election.

Even supposing this strategy works and delivers an election victory, and because of the fragmented votes, quite a number of seats will be won on low pluralities. The leakage of votes to the minor parties may continue to grow if the Conservatives continue to neglect core Conservative interests and ideals.

At present the prospect of a Conservative government is soaking up most discontent with Labour. If the Cameron government goes off the rails, the scope for the minor parties to grow is quite spectacular if they get their own houses in order.

It has seemed for some time that it is the election after 2010 which will have the scope for a major upset in British politics whatever the result in 2010.

(Ed. The next election after 2010 will bring Britain very close to the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015.)

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