Private polling done for the Conservative Party in 2010 found that voters still had four main concerns about us as Tories in the runup to the election: That in a crisis we’d stick up for those who were already wealthy, that we wouldn’t be able to make changes, that some problems were so severe that they couldn’t be fixed by political parties, and that we would weaken the NHS and other public services. The lack of that brand decontamination, combined with fears that all we were interested in doing was making deep spending cuts, were some of the main reasons we lost the last election. Rather than being seen as centrist, we were seen as being too right wing. Especially the party rather than the leadership. It may seem as if the Labour party are playing straight into our hands in their latest plan to attack Cameron, but we can’t afford to be complacent. Shaun Woodward is right in that if they land the blows correctly, that one could be the killer for Cameron’s image.
In Conservative circles it may seem to be the case that Cameron is beelining to the centre while the rest of the party rightly rebel. However, this hasn’t been how the public have seen our leader. Polling in January proved that in the eyes of the public, Cameron was seen as being more right wing than the rest of the party. This is worrying. Cameron was the only reason we were able to form any sort of government at the last election – because of his centrist credentials. If that image can’t be fixed, while it’s doubtful that Ed Miliband can step up to the task, Cameron could take a dent in his reputation in the same way Blair did in his later years, and to a lesser extent Gordon Brown.
While Blair was able to capture the public mood and be shown as centrist in almost all instances when this polling was carried out, although Cameron seems to have been saying the right things, it isn’t translating into public support. The previous perception of him moving to the right of his party has stuck and, no matter what he says, he won’t be listened to.
Woodward is right to be wary. Tim Montgomerie rightly says public opinion has shifted to a certain extent on many issues which are typically Conservative territory, but, as I’ve written before this can’t be an excuse to revert to failed policies and outdated means of presentation. Margaret Thatcher’s way of presenting issues made the party exceptionally unpopular over the longer term. Although immigration, law and order, and welfare are wedge issues on which Ed Miliband has wrongly positioned his party, if they are able to make the accusations that we’re reverting back to old attitudes of xenophobia, hang ‘em and flog ‘em policies, and hitting the most vulnerable, then, while Labour may not be strengthened, the progress made in presenting ourselves as a modern party for the whole of the UK will be lost.
The reform of public services is an area in which we are especially vulnerable. While we in the Conservative Party are aware that introducing choice and markets into public services is vital for making them fit for use, voters are wary of what this choice means. The Fabian Society are right when they say that diversity in services and localism isn’t necessarily popular. We should have the courage of our convictions to continue with the schools revolution that we’ve started, but plans to bring voters onside with choice are key.
The same is true of the environment – although Tim says that the mood has changed to be more sceptical of environmental policies, he states himself that even Conservative voters are against changing planning laws if they were seen as being a threat to their local environment. This is where Cameron is vulnerable – rather than on specific climate change policies. In this instance we can overcome this fear by relating the changing of planning laws with something that is popular. The need for affordable housing is one of voters' main concerns. By explaining that easing planning restrictions will be done with local consent, we can fight back against the claims of people like Simon Jenkins who claim we want to destroy the environment that we all care about.
Ed Miliband isn’t a strong leader: this much is obvious. The Liberal Democrats’ vote seems to have evaporated. This much is true, too. David Cameron and the Tories are still seen as being too right wing. This is something that we all seem to forget. We are doing the right thing, but without continuing the decontamination of the Tory brand, we can look forward to the wilderness we faced because of the failures of presentation of the Thatcher and Major years.