Friday, May 4, 2012

Mid-term Blues or Long-term Denial?

It's the night after the day of the morning after the night before.

The 2012 local elections are done and dusted, and it's time to take stock. The basic story is this: Labour have regained pretty much all of the ground lost in the disastrous local elections during Gordon Brown's premiership, and are now back where they were during Tony Blair's tenure. The Conservatives have had their artificially-high water-mark of Brown's time brought back down to earth with a thump. And the LibDems just keep on reaching new lows of despair.

That's the broader picture, but there are many sub-plots. The turnout was low (as is often the case), but the local elections are a barometer of where Cameron's government, his party and his personality stand with the public after two years.
Baroness Warsi, the Tory chairperson, said (rashly, as it turned out) that Labour would be doing well if they won more than 700 council seats. In fact, they gained more than 800. It's true that Labour were starting from a low base, but what's also noticeable and significant is the breadth of their success: stealing councils from the LibDems in the north and midlands, and the same from the Tories in the midlands and south. These are exactly the places they need win councillors in to be in a good position for a national election.

In terms of the popular vote, Labour scored about seven percent higher than the Tories, 38% to the Conservatives 31%. Political experts point out that this not a significant advantage for an opposition be in mid-term: during Blair's tenure as PM, the Tories were often as far ahead, but failed to win the national election later, and the same was said of Kinnock against Thatcher in the eighties. That may be true, but they're also forgetting something important: the Conservatives are not in a majority government. Also, Blair and Thatcher presided over a boom; the Coalition is in a sustained period of economic stagnation.
In other words, this local election is taking place in a situation that hasn't existed in living memory. If the Conservatives are in government now, and their high watermark is as sharing government as a minority party, then Conservatism as a political force in the UK is effectively moribund.

This is not just "mid-term blues" for the Conservatives; it would be a long-term denial to think of themselves any more as the "natural party of government".

No-one in the UK seriously expects the economy to fully recover by 2015, except those fantasising in George Osborne's Treasury. As the vast majority of the cuts have yet to take place, the only way that the economy could possibly have a chance to recover in time for the next national election would be if the Coalition made a complete about-turn on its policy of cuts and adopted Labour's own economic strategy - investing in jobs and growth and having a more long-term deficit reduction plan. But that would be a political humiliation for the Cameron, and give even more ammunition to Labour, to add the the growing amount of political open goals from the government already.

So the local election results effectively give Labour a large advantage over the government for the future national election.
The Conservatives' position in government is complicated, first of all, because the local elections saw a rise in the vote of UKIP. In some cases, Labour gained councils from the Conservatives because disaffected Tory voters chose UKIP instead, therefore reducing the Conservative vote by a margin high enough to swing council seats the other way to Labour. This is a small-scale version of what is likely to happen in the French elections this weekend - far-right supporters abstaining instead of supporting Sarkozy in the run-off, giving the Socialist, Hollande, the presidency. In the aftermath of the local elections, Tory politicians are arguing that Cameron must be more supportive of traditional Conservative values and causes in order to re-capture the trust of those migrating ultra-Conservative voters.
But then there is a second problem: the personality of Boris Johnson, who narrowly retained the Conservative hold on the London mayoralty, while Conservatives around the country were being punished hard by Labour. Some Tories are saying that Cameron has to be more like Boris in style and thinking in order to win over the affections of the people. With Boris being effectively the second most powerful Tory in the country, and certainly with more popular support with his eligible voters than Cameron, it puts the Prime Minister in a further fix. Because Boris is something of a maverick (whose ideology seems as incoherent as some of his sentences), "learning lessons" from Boris is something Cameron would likely be reluctant to do. Nevertheless, some Tories would be calling more something to change from Cameron's way of doing business. But what?
Cameron's last (and potentially biggest) headache is his Coalition partners, the LibDems. Having lost, in two years of successive local elections, a vast number of council seats, the LibDem leadership in government would be pressed to make significant changes in their approach to Coalition - more independent of the Conservatives, and more obviously left-wing and progressive. This means that, like after last year's local elections, Cameron may feel obliged to cut the LibDems some slack over policy. But when looking at the two points already mentioned, we see the obvious problem.

With both the Conservatives and LibDems under pressure from their party base and MPs for respective "red meat" policies, there is now the serious danger of the Coalition being put under intense pressure in the coming weeks, months and years till the next election.
Nick Clegg seems the most likely of the two Coalition's party leaders to compromise, and support the government come what may. Clegg has now trapped himself in what looks like a self-defeating vicious circle: in spite of whatever damage is done to his party at the grass-roots, he feels obliged to see the Coalition through to the end, in the belief that voters will eventually give them the benefit of the doubt once the economy improves. But for the last eighteen months, that belief has looked more and more like a daydream. So he manages to stay as leader till 2015, his party will be hammered. If he pulls out of the Coalition early and forces an early election, his party is still likely to be hammered. If his party de-select him as their leader and their new leader pulls out of the Coalition early, the party may still be hammered. The LibDems are trapped in a burning building with no safe exits: they know it, and Cameron knows it.
If, however, Cameron repeats his compromises of last year for the benefit of the LibDems (though it seems politically more difficult now he's been punished at the polls), the murmurings within the Tories will increase. Already with a question over Cameron's judgement, more appeasement to the LibDems may well lead to a rebellion and a leadership challenge from a more right-wing candidate. The consequences of that on the Coalition are obvious.

So from now on, things are going to get even stickier within the Coalition, while Labour look on and reap the rewards. Politics is a funny old game. Two years ago, the Two Eds, Milliband and Balls were tarred with the brush of Brown, and were all punished at the polls. Their message on growth versus cuts was seen as discredited.
But now, with the experience of the Eurozone in the news every week, the arguments that the Conservatives made for cuts in 2010 look old hat. Brown and his disciples are vindicated. Their message hasn't changed; they are largely repeating Brown's response to the financial crisis - an Obama-style stimulus, inspired by FDR's strategy to tackle the Depression. In 2012, the man who "saved the world" in 2008 isn't looking quite so out-of-touch. Not compared to "arrogant posh boy" Dave Cameron.

Come back Gordon - all is forgiven!

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