Tim Montgomerie has written for The Guardian today about the possibility of a prize even bigger than victory at the next General Election: Realignment.
Realignment is bigger than victory because it involves a class/ group/ section of society choosing not to just change their vote at one election but choosing to change their party identification. Realignment involves voters making a decisive reassessment of which political party best represents their interests and values. It is a change that will probably last for a number of elections.
There is a real possibility that lower income voters could over the next few years make a decision that the Conservative Party is now their champion. Lower income workers – rather than the very poorest* – are the players in this scenario. Here are four key ingredients for that possible realignment:
Labour’s failure: The 10p tax rise on low income workers is only the most obvious manifestation of Labour’s failure of its heartland vote. The looming rises in car tax are another. But the failure is across the board. Despite fifteen years of economic growth there are 600,000 more people living in extreme poverty. Child poverty targets have been missed. Britain is dropping down the international literacy league and climbing the crime and disorder tables. When real disposable incomes are falling and when the very poor are getting poorer Labour’s core identity is rotting.
The Conservative alternative: There are a range of Tory policies that already support realignment. The schools policy Michael Gove highlighted yesterday won’t win many votes now but has the potential to be very important once enacted. Policies on crime, ending the couple penalty in the benefits system and a tough approach to immigration all make a contribution. Yesterday’s brilliant speech by David Cameron on ‘right and wrong’ has enormous potential to connect with the values of blue collar workers. A principal reason why right-wing parties in all parts of the world are winning more support from lower income workers is that such workers are increasingly turned off by the politically correct values of left-liberal parties. Chris Grayling’s plans for ‘a new welfare state’ are underwritten by a strong moral sense. In addition to the policies already articulated there should be a policy for taking the poor out of the income tax system and a more fundamental effort to clean up politics. It was Labour MPs who dominated last week’s Commons vote to keep the ‘"John Lewis list"; Labour voters did not send Margaret Beckett and John Prescott into the Commons so that they could get taxpayer-funded garden plants and Sky subscriptions.
The campaigning machine: Crewe & Nantwich showed that blue collar workers were willing to desert Labour and vote Conservative but it also showed that the Party now has a machine that can succeed in previously hard-to-win seats.
Time is on the Tories’ side: Fundamental realignment of voters’ perceptions of the two parties is, however, at least a decade-long project but time is now on the Conservatives’ side. Modern electorates tend to give new governments more than one term in office. Bush, Howard, Schoeder, Chirac, Zapatero and Blair all won re-election battles. Political events permitting, the Conservatives are probably about to begin not a four year period of office but something much longer. They should use that time to solidify the realignment that is now underway.
* Much of the agenda of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice is about helping the very poorest. The agenda discussed above is more about lower income workers. A Conservative Party that actively cares for these different groups is a party that recovers its finest one tradition. Compassionate Conservatism is fundamentally the right thing to do, morally, but there are two different forms of electoral politics at work here, too. An agenda for the very poorest will win few direct votes but tells middle class and other comfortable voters that the Conservatives are a decent party that won’t leave people behind. An agenda for low income workers has more direct political appeal to those helped.