Stephen Tall is Contributing Editor of Lib Dem Voice.
Time to end where it all began. It’s three years since – in a political exchange visit with this site’s founder Tim Montgomerie – I penned my first column for ConservativeHome, answering the question,“What would I do if I were in your shoes?” And that’s what I’m returning to in this, my last contribution, before the Coalition consciously uncouples. Here, then, are my final, parting shots…
It’s an irony and a paradox that continues to frustrate Lib Dems: strategically, the party occupies the sweet-spot in British politics. When asked, almost half of all voters (48 per cent) self-identify broadly as centrists, a much larger proportion than those who call themselves left-wing (14 per cent) or right-wing (12 per cent). And broadly in the centre – leaning, like the public, ever-so-slightly to the left – is just where the voters reckon the Lib Dems are, too.
But, yes, I’ve seen our poll ratings. I realise occupying the same political space as the electorate doesn’t automatically convert into voter support. My party has suffered five years of severe collateral damage: partly our fault (that fees U-turn), partly your fault (some voters can’t forgive us for putting the Conservatives in power), and partly the media’s fault (it’s not just that they don’t like us — they don’t even want to try to understand us). The cumulative impact has devastated Lib Dem self-belief, so it’s small wonder the public finds it hard to believe in us much at the moment.
Of this I remain certain, though: our slogan, ‘Stronger economy, fairer society: opportunity for everyone’, is a winning one. Or, at least, it would be if it were used by one of the two parties which has a hope of winning this election outright. If the Conservatives lose in May, it will not be because the public think they’ll be financially worse off under David Cameron. It will be because he’s failed to persuade enough voters his party can be trusted to govern with compassion. (The reverse is true of Labour and Ed Miliband.)
Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative: this should be Election Strategy 101. It’s not hard to find the positive that Conservatives can accentuate. An economic recovery has happened on the Coalition’s watch. Though neither party actually deserves much credit for this reversion to austerity-delayed growth, there’s no doubt your much-banged-on-about ‘Long-Term Economic Plan’ is an electoral banker come May. You could even exhume your 1997 slogan, ‘Yes It Hurt, Yes It Worked’ (which would be more successful this time around, absent the crushing ‘Black Wednesday’ U-turn on which the mid-1990s’ recovery was built).
All this should give Conservatives the space you need to make nice with some of those voters you’ve rubbed up the wrong way these past five years: proving that you are in politics to help the have-nots, re-building yourselves as a national party.
Instead, the Conservatives have decided (yet again) to accentuate the negative. In just one week, the party launched yet another assault on those in receipt of welfare by planning to strip benefits from the obese and drug addicts if they failed to improve their lifestyle; stoutly defended their former treasurer Lord Fink for defending his “vanilla, bland” steps to reduce his tax bill; and auctioned off a 500-kill pheasant and partridge shoot at their annual Black and White fundraising gala.
If it weren’t such an obvious clusterf*ck, I’d assume the Conservatives were just trolling The Guardian. But it’s not the confirmed pinko-liberals you should worry about offending: it’s the centrists, those wanting to vote for a party with both a cool head and a warm heart. Such voters are, according to a YouGov poll this last weekend, increasingly buying into the attack on the Conservatives that you ‘look like the party of the tax-avoiding super-rich, to the detriment of the public services on which ordinary people depend’.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And, until relatively recently, it wasn’t. It’s only a little more than six years since one poll showed the Cameroon Conservatives with 52 per cent support. But that was in the days when the Tory leader was self-confidently wooing moderates, pledging to go green by hugging huskies and fitting solar-powered hoodies to the roof of his Notting Hill house (or something). True, a lot of this modernisation was cosmetic only; a concealer, the cynics would say. What comes next has to be more than just skin-deep.
There is a clear route ahead. Some of it has been mapped out by (whisper it) the Lib Dems. It was Nick Clegg who ensured the Coalition’s single most popular policy – raising the personal tax allowance for low- and middle-earners – was implemented, rather than George Osborne’s favoured inheritance tax cuts for millionaires. And it was Clegg’s commitment to the Pupil Premium – extra money to boost the attainment of children from low-income families – which ensured it was backed up by new cash, and not just carved out of the existing schools budget.
Other parts were signposted in last week’s 12-point The Good Right manifesto, in particular its commitment to a state-supported housebuilding programme ‘to cut the future cost of housing benefits and to rebuild the idea of a property owning democracy again’. For 30 years, up until 1979, this was a proud Conservative policy. Then you turned your attention from house-building to home-owning, from those in need of a house to those who already have one. Time to get back to basics. Welcome, too, was The Good Right’s classically liberal pledge to shift the burden of taxation away from income and onto wealth and property.
On one hot topic, immigration, The Good Right was silent. The Conservatives, though, cannot be (despite Lynton Crosby’s likely doomed attempt to message-discipline it out of your election campaign). I don’t expect you to imitate the open borders approach of a drawbridge-down liberal like me – or even the avowedly pro-immigration Boris Johnson.
But there is a moderate, pragmatic but still principled option open to you which doesn’t involve shabbily trying to out-UKIP the ‘Kippers with dog-whistled messages. Indeed, it was set out on this very site by Sunder Katwala, who urged Conservatives to make promises you can keep by setting workable targets with three features: “address migration which is within the control of government policy; target areas that the government does want to cap; and be set at levels which it believes can be achieved over a Parliament.” In short, treat the voters as grown-ups capable of a sensible and straightforward conversation which honestly acknowledges both the pressures and the benefits of immigration.
To govern is to choose. But, with a second hung parliament seemingly inevitable, the Conservatives have to face up to an earlier choice. I summarised this here as Tall’s Law: “the more right-wing the policies the Conservative Party enthusiastically pursues, the more likely it is it will be reliant on a second coalition being formed after the next general election; yet it is those very same right-wing policies which are likely to make it impossible for the Lib Dems to accept a second coalition. Which leaves me with one question: What’s your Plan B?” I’m no nearer understanding your answer, and I don’t think you are, either.
No matter what you may have been mis-informed in the past, there is always an alternative. If I were in your shoes, I’d seize it quick.
I would like to say thank you to ConservativeHome for its generosity in giving a member of the Yellow Peril this platform to provoke – constructively, I hope. As I wrote in this column recently, “What I’d like is very straightforward: frank, honest and open debate about big issues minus the assumption that those who disagree also eat babies for breakfast.” By and large, I think that’s what’s happened here, for which much thanks to those of you who’ve joined in the conversation below-the-line.