"I suppose I must" and "At least they're better than the alternatives": these are likely to be quite widespread sentiments amongst Conservative voters going to the polls today. Some people that might otherwise be every-time Conservative voters may wonder whether merely being better than the alternatives is enough, and might be considering giving UKIP a try or not voting this time.
At the national level, having jumped up in December 2011 from the around-35% they'd sat at for some time to some 42% or so, in response to David Cameron's "veto" (that wasn't) of the Fiscal Union Treaty, Conservative poll ratings peaked at around January 22nd and thereafter, following the u-turn on the "veto" – allowing the Fiscal Union Treaty to use the institutions of the EU, thereby emptying the "veto" of its only content – have fallen steadily ever since. Rows over granny taxes, pasty taxes, charity taxes, and then dinners-for-donors, the Qatada debacle, House of Lords reform, and now the Hunt affair have reinforced the already-downward trend, driving Conservative polls ratings to below 30% – lower even than the around-32% we polled consistently in the "flatline" period from 1992-2005. How's that "detoxification" coming along?
Many Conservative activists and long-term loyal Conservative voters struggle to summon much enthusiasm for this government. They see it as a necessity rather than a joy – hardly surprising when it itself paints many of its key policies, especially in areas like debt reduction, failure to reform in the EU, and constitutional reform in the UK as things it is forced to do, rather than that it wants to do. When they think hard, perhaps they remember Gove's education measures, but in general the pastures of conviction are dry and sandy and the grass of delivery yellow and coarse.
Some Conservative councillors attempt to distance themselves from central Coalition policies, and this attempt to "decouple" from the government's fate has been particularly apparent (and successful) for Boris in London. It isn't that there is a coherent Conservative movement that sees itself as improving society, economy, constitution and local environment. Conservative folk say: "I'm not the same as the Coalition – but they are, at least, better than the alternatives."
It is, however, worth pondering that being better than the alternatives is, in many areas of life (not just elections), usually enough. When I'm not exhorting or explaining on here, in my day job I work much of my time on various issues of public policy and regulation. One of the things I'm best-known for in my field is called "cost of capital" analysis in economic regulation. You can think of that, for now, as meaning that I advise on how much profit companies that are subject to price regulation (e.g. water companies, electricity and gas companies, airports, telecoms companies, and so on) should be permitted to make.
In the UK, the central theory used in cost of capital analysis in price regulation is called the "Capital Asset Pricing Model" (CAPM). CAPM (rather like the Coalition government) has been subject to many criticisms. By around 2005 there started to be serious consideration as to whether UK regulators should move away from CAPM. I was commission to write pieces for various regulators (in particular Ofcom, the CAA and Ofwat) on the question of whether CAPM should be abandoned. I argued that it should not be, because despite its weaknesses it worked better, in the context of long regulatory reviews, than alternative models.
Why am I telling you this? Because although CAPM was subject to many criticisms, and indeed a number of those criticisms (though not all) were in there own terms perfectly correct, that a model has weaknesses is not a sufficient ground for abandoning it. We should only ever ditch one model, or method, or dishbrush, or overcoat, or political party if we have something better available instead. Our dishes must be washed; we must go out in the rain sometimes; and the country must be governed. Throwing away our dishbrush or overcoat or political party with no concept that some alternative might be better is not wisdom – it is nihilism.
So when we think about policy, we can argue that the government should do this or that. And when we lobby the leaders of our own party we can urge that as Conservatives they ought to believe such-and-such or keep this-or-that promise they made to us as their friends. And we are entitled to grumble if they don't – in extremis even replace our leaders.
But come election time our disappointment with our own leaders ceases to be the thing that counts. At an election, we have a choice between this party or that, and much the key thing that counts then is simply: is this option better than that?
Whatever our disappointments with the Coalition, come election time we should be in no doubt. It isn't even remotely close. In councils around the country; in London for the Mayor – and, if it came to it in three more weeks' time, in the UK for Parliament – the Conservative Party, for all its imperfections, is vastly better than the alternatives. Don't abandon wisdom for nihilism. Vote Conservative – better is good enough.