In the last two general elections, the Conservatives won 36 per cent and 33 per cent, and Labour 36 per cent and 29 per cent. Whatever the polls may suggest, the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to fall below ten per cent, a figure that UKIP is also regularly registering. (Indeed, Nick Clegg’s party may well poll higher than that figure, and UKIP will almost certainly score better three per cent, the total they gained last time round.) In short, British politics is becoming more like that of the continent, a change that has gradually been taking place since the war. Margaret Thatcher is looked back on as an electoral giant for winning three times a Tory vote percentage in the mid-to-early 40s. But her achievement already represented a decline from the days of Harold Macmillan, who won just short of half the vote. Our electoral arrangements reflect this profound shift. Elections to the European and Scottish parliaments and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies are not conducted under first past the past.
This is the backdrop against which to view Nick Boles’s speech to Bright Blue yesterday evening. It wasn’t correct in every particular: few speeches are. The most reliable means by which Conservatives internationally have won elections is the equivalent of a conservatism for Bolton West – in other words, a popular conservatism aimed fairly and squarely at striving voters. In the case of its most recent Anglosphere champion, Australia’s Tony Abbott, this has meant lower taxes, immigration control, more infrastructure and scrapping carbon taxes (together with a strong stress on social justice: he spends a week a year with aboriginal Australians, carrying out community work). We have to keep hold of our present voters while reaching out to new ones, and Boles’s stress on the latter is unbalanced. The central strategic mistake of the uber-modernisers since 2005 has been to alienate parts of its traditional base, a misreading of the example set by another Tony – Blair, not Abbott.
But while the Planning Minister’s solutions aren’t all correct, his analysis is bang on the money. A central problem for the Tories, he said, is that they are seen as “the party of the rich”, a case that this site has argued for a long time (see here recently). And while he is wrong to suggest sinking all the Party’s capital into younger voters, he is right to maintain that they are a stock in which we are grossly under-invested. What is true of ethnic minorities (groups of people to which the ultra-modernisers have given insufficient thought, care and time) is also true of younger voters – namely that, if they continue to act as they do, the Conservative Party is heading for the Dignitas door. Labour scooped 68 per cent of the ethnic minority vote in 2010. The story was happier among 18 to 25 years olds, with David Cameron’s party obtaining 30 per cent – but that was the same total as Gordon Brown’s won, after 13 years of Labour failure. Fewer than half that group voted at all. Russell Brand rules.
A riposte to these grisly statistics is: don’t worry, they’ll all vote Tory when they’re older. Really? As those raised in the 1960s and later have aged, have their views reverted to pre-60s ones on ethnicity, sex, disability? Is it too fanciful, 20 years on from the last Conservative election victory, to wonder whether the Tories might be going the same way? After all, there is no sign that the state-sceptic views of some younger voters will, as logic suggests, turn itself into votes for the Conservative Party in future elections. So how to win them over? Boles wants to make a dash for popularity by trumpeting support for same-sex marriage (for example). The obvious objection is that this risks losing as many voters at one end of the age scale as it may gain at the other. An even more telling one is that a political party with a long history can’t change its identity overnight. If it tries to do so, it risks ridicule. There is nothing so unconvincing as a middle-aged man straining “to get down with the kids”.
A Tortoise Solution to the Tories’ problems is surely better than a Hare one: slow, steady, consistent campaigning and delivery on the problems that disproportionately blight younger voters, such as their lack of access to good housing and secure jobs – two of the trinity of Homes, Jobs and Savings that illustrate this website’s masthead. Since Boles is actually the Planning Minister, and is striving courageously and rightly to build more get more homes built, it is striking that housing scarcely features in the version of the speech that has been published. Instead, its core was his suggestion that, since the Conservatives are unlikely to win election majorities in the near future, it should work towards setting up a National Liberal Party. This idea is problematic for many reasons, not least that people can’t be herded like sheep to vote for particular parties: ironically, Boles makes the same mistake as the supporters of the unworkable and mistaken Conservative-UKIP pact.
The Planning Minister doesn’t lack enemies. The Telegraph and the Mail see him as a threat to the interest of their readers. Some right-wing Tory MPs dismiss him as an uber-moderniser, though his views on immigration are at least as flinty as theirs. His critics will say that he shouldn’t be rocking boats or backing Boris, and that he is behaving more like the think-tank head that he was than the Minster that he is. Others will write off his speech as a throw of the dice by a man under siege. A better response is to look at it not just in detail, but in the round. Fundamentally, he is making a big, brave argument – that, to get back in the winning game, changing message and even image will not be enough. With a vote distribution that disproportionately helps Labour, the Party’s strategic aim must be to change the electoral battleground. Boles’s means is National Liberals. Cameron’s was to reduce the size of seats. Mine is Justice for England. Until or unless the problem is solved, we look disturbingly like the natural party of opposition.