The Conservatives failed to hold Eastleigh in a by-election in 1994 after a tragic scandal which only harmed the man involved. The Lib Dems held it in 2013 after their candidate finally admitted to being a criminal. Over the past two years Labour have held a string of seats after their MPs disgraced themselves. We can safely assume that if these scandals had involved Tories an electoral battering would have followed. We are not given the same benefit of the doubt as other parties.
Looking further back such is the attitude of the electorate to us that in 1990 we lost the Eastbourne by-election after Ian Gow was murdered by the Provisional IRA. Dying in the defence of our democracy won Tories no votes. This lack of sentimentality from the electorate to us is long-standing. Look at the way the Conservative party was ejected from office after World War 2 for example. It is notable that the Conservative party has won its great landslide election victories when already in office, rather than coming into office on a wave of enthusiasm like Labour in 1945 or 1997.
In short the Conservative party, in contrast to the others, does not count on affection, or even enthusiasm to win. We know a lot of people don’t like us, that they vote for us because they believe we will do what they know to be necessary, but we also realise that many of those willing to vote for us may turn against us very rapidly if we don’t deliver the results that they voted for.
It’s tempting to moan about this and complain that we are misunderstood and people should stick with us more through the hard times: we are just as nice people as Labour (nicer on average considering their nasty elements); we are as local as Lib Dems and as willing to challenge the left-liberal establishment as UKIP.
However, with the voters never being wrong we must ask why they seem unforgiving – perhaps they know us better than we do ourselves. In truth we would be horrified by people voting Conservative to feel good about themselves, or to express reactionary despair about the world going to rack and ruin. We tell people that what matters is what works, and they judge us on that basis.
If we don’t get affection, is it perhaps because we don’t offer it in government? We are not hard-hearted as our opponents paint us, but we can – and usually must – be hard-headed. Where jobs must be axed, cuts must be implemented or the more grisly work of defence or law and order done, we get on with it pragmatically and determinedly. We admit to people that there is no alternative, and we explain the hard decisions we make. So it is unsurprising they judge us in the same way. And deep down, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
The announcement this week of four independent commissions to assess the evidence of policy-making, focusing on what works and recommending improvements, is an interesting step (if somewhat surprisingly late in establishment, and vague in their mission – what will their transparency and publishing requirements be, and crucially, what happens if they recommend something politically unpalatable, as happened when Alan Johnson sacked David Nutt?) No doubt there will be bumps along the way, but a focus on fact and evidence is – as with sites such as Full Fact and Channel 4′s Fact Check – a welcome addition to our political landscape.
We should forget the sterile debate about positions and personalities – the only thing the Conservative party should fight on are the critical issues facing the country. We must also stop hiving off difficult decisions, like the future of airport capacity, to technocrats. That’s not just bad policy as Douglas Carswell argues, it’s actually political castration for the Conservative party, whose brand is built on decisiveness.
But, finally, and most importantly, as a party we should keep calm and carry on – because that’s what people vote for us for.