Several years ago I was at an academic conference where the journalist Nick Cohen was a keynote speaker. Part of the way through his talk he paused in the middle of a sentence, looked up, scoured the room and declared: “of course there can’t be any Conservatives left in academia anyway". Whether or not there is a dearth of conservatism on campus, there is certainly a vibrant research community looking at the Conservative Party in politics departments across the UK. The most obvious manifestation of this is the "Conservatives and Conservatism" specialist group of the Political Studies Association, established only in late 2008 by Tim Bale of Sussex University.
One recent event advertised on the group’s website was a conference at the University of Leeds on April 4th, entitled "Cameron and the Conservatives: The Transition to Coalition Government" organised by Timothy Heppell and David Seawright. I was not involved in the conference or its organization, but went along to observe and join in discussion, along with a good many others.
Beginning detailed academic analysis of a government less than a year after it has been formed is full of pitfalls – not least the risk that academics slip into punditry. However, the quality and breadth of opinion that was represented by the scholars at this event – including such luminaries as Philip Norton and Andrew Gamble meant that this really was a benchmark contribution to the study of the Coalition in government. This is not the right forum for a detailed analysis of each speaker’s contribution, but there were several points raised during the day that are worth taking note of, either because they furthered debate, or added new insights.
Some of the most interesting comments came in Lord Norton’s paper, where he declared that the threat to the coalition came not so much from difficulties between Cameron and Clegg, as from the backbenchers of each party. So far so familiar: however, to add meat to this assertion, he threw some astonishing statistics into the brew. Usually levels of dissent from backbench MPs are at their lowest in the early parliamentary sessions of a newly elected government which has freshly arrived from opposition.
However, since the coalition was formed last year, more divisions in the House of Commons have seen backbench MPs from the governing parties dissent from the government whip than during the entire period of 1945-1959. A quarter of Tory backbenchers have voted against the government on one or more occasion since May 2010. Norton warned that most governments see a decline in voting obedience as parliaments progress, which means that regular government defeats in the future would not be out of the question.
A lot of attention was devoted to the notion of the Big Society. Despite many of those present being mystified by the concept, a great deal of effort was put into classifying and defining what the Big Society stands for. Peter Kerr, Christopher Byrne and Emma Foster see it as a veil for a classically neo-liberal agenda – they argue that it is unlikely to work because the Government is relying on exhortation alone to convince people to be more active in their local communities. Stuart MacAnnulla compared the idea of the Big Society to "reverse alchemy", doubting whether voters will stomach the repatriation of services performed by the state to the communities that historically fulfilled those roles.
David Seawright suggested that confusion over what the Big Society stood for, and the resulting lack of a clear message that resonated with the public during the general election was the biggest contributor to the Conservative failure to win an outright majority besides David Cameron’s agreement to taking part in the leaders’ debates – "a notable mistake". Another major factor was discussed by Jane Green, who has analysed polling data which clearly shows that the Tory core vote dropped dramatically after the ERM crisis in 1992/1993, and that the number of people willing to say they are Conservatives (as opposed to those who vote Tory) has never recovered from that.
Moving to economic policy, Andrew Gamble was sceptical about the potential for success of a strategy that front-loads the biggest cuts at the beginning of the parliament, and relies on an economic recovery to help the Conservatives to election success in 2015. However, Osborne’s strategy of blaming Labour for the financial mess is proving successful, and Tim Heppell argued that despite good poll ratings for voting intentions in recent months, Ed Miliband and Labour are a very long way from regaining the initiative, with polling data showing that the public is extremely wary of both the idea of Ed Miliband as prime minister, and Labour’s competence if it were back in charge at the treasury.
James Hampshire presented a very interesting analysis of immigration policy, which he has authored with Tim Bale. Taking the pledge to reduce immigration from "hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands", Hampshire sought to establish how this might work in practice. In 2010 net immigration was about 215,000, so it would need to be more than halved to fulfill the pledge.
Contrary to popular belief, EU migration is quite a small proportion of that at the moment, with by far the largest group being students. New policies will reduce this number, but concessions have already been made which will reduce the impact on lowering numbers. This leaves economic migration, where Hampshire says we face the irony of moving from a centre-left laissez-faire government with what was perceived as a pro-business immigration policy, to a centre-right government using state planning to reduce immigration through policies many of which are opposed by business. In other words, if the government succeeds in cutting immigration it will annoy big business, and if it doesn’t then that will become an electoral albatross in 2015.
Looking specifically at David Cameron as Prime Minister, Kevin Theakston considered his leadership abilities against criteria laid down by Fred Greenstein. In a recent article Theakston had found Gordon Brown wanting in all of six main areas of leadership competence, but considered Cameron to do very well in each category. According to interviews that Theakston has conducted in Westminster, Cameron is seen as an effective communicator who is more sincere than Blair, and that he is pragmatic in his policy-making, but that does not mean he lacks a sense of direction. The only criticism that is regularly made of the Prime Minister is his laid back style of chairing meetings, and that he prioritises breadth over depth – though that could also be considered a quality in a leader. Theakston suggested that a year in, Cameron is looking "pretty formidable".
One thing that was perhaps lacking was a defender of the "Big Society" concept to answer some of the criticism, but if a certain scepticism about the coalition programme was apparent at the conference, it was for no more sinister reason than the fact that academics are prone to couch comment as critique – in fact there was substantial criticism of all three main parties. Of course private opinions were another matter, with one speaker making an aside that "fixing the broken society" would be better called "breaking the mended society".
Challenging and controversial in parts, as all good debate should be, events like this should be championed and engaged with. If you disagreed with any of the analysis reported here, then look for the next conference at a political science department near you and go along to set the record straight – it is good for scholarship; excellent for public engagement, and vital in a vibrant democracy.