The Eastleigh by-election was one of the most right wing campaigns fought by the Conservatives in the past decade. The leaflets and literature of the Conservative candidate were covered in the same old messages that the Tory right have suggested would result in electoral success – a focus on Europe, immigration and welfare, as well as a misguided campaign against building on the greenbelt. The photo below illustrates what the Tory campaign was concentrating on:
The result of a campaign fought resolutely on the right, using ‘true Conservative’ ideas was a humiliating third place. And this was in the kind of seat that the Tories have to win at the next election if they’re to have any hope of winning an overall majority at the next election.
The response of some to this defeat has been extraordinary. Rather than seeing Eastleigh as an example of how fighting a ‘core-vote’ right wing campaign will almost always have the same result of heavy defeat, many on the right have seen the third place in Eastleigh as a reason for a shift further to the right. Just as Tony Benn saw Labour’s 1983 defeat as “encouraging”, many on the Tory right think the Eastleigh result justifies a rightward shift. This is based on a false premise and would lead to a further decline in the Tory vote, over two decades since their last election victory.
The false premise is that the Tories are somehow seen as ‘not right wing enough’. That is a premise that is unproven by every single poll on the matter. The big dip in Tory fortunes didn’t come about because of gay marriage, or High Speed 2, or any of the other policies that the Tory right denounce. Indeed, most of the policies that critics want reversed are actually popular with the public. Instead, the Tory polling decline happened after the 50p tax cut, which the right had been aggressively campaigning for. It was pretty hard to go anywhere at the 2011 Conservative conference without seeing a ‘axe the tax’ lapel badge. Before the 50p tax cut, the Tories were polling around 40%. Now they are marooned in the twenties.
There’s a lot of evidence that voters see the Government as considerably more right wing than they are. As the chart below illustrates, Tony Blair’s great genius was to be portrayed as exactly where the voters perceived themselves to be on the political spectrum – leaving the Tory Party seeming out of touch and remote.
If the Tory Party really was perceived as not being right wing enough, you would expect polls today to reflect that. Of course, that isn’t what polls suggest at all. The most recent YouGov polls on the matter suggest that the public regard the Conservative Party (and David Cameron) as well to the right of centre. Where 0 is the centre and the public regard themselves as pretty much bang in the centre (-1), the Tories are perceived as being well to the right (+46), with David Cameron also being seen as a right wing figure (+43) – a substantial shift from where they were when David Cameron had just become leader, when the Tories were +37.
This builds on a myth that the Tories failed to win the 2010 election because they weren’t right wing enough. Again, every poll on the matter suggests that this isn’t true. Philip Cowley took apart this concept in his analysis of the 2010 election:
“Finally – and most importantly, in terms of the debate about the party’s future – there is the claim that the campaign was not Right-wing enough… Much more significantly, the party’s own polling found a lingering distrust of the Conservatives among the public. When those who had considered voting Tory were asked why they had not eventually done so, the most common answers involved concerns that the party was still for the rich rather than for ordinary people, or about spending cuts and the removal of benefits such as tax credits…The marginal constituencies where the Conservative failed to break through, and which they needed to win an overall majority, were those in Scotland or with large numbers of ethnic minority voters or public-sector workers, or all three.. It is difficult to argue that the best way to appeal to them in future will be to move the party back to the Right.”
And this, in particular, is where Conservatives need to stand back and properly learn the lessons of Eastleigh and 2010. The Tories didn’t fail to win over people who ended up voting Labour and Liberal Democrat at the last election because they were seen as not being right wing enough. Nor will they win back these crucial voters in 2015 by appealing to the ‘core vote’ and overly worrying about UKIP.
The reason that the Tories haven’t won an election for 21 years is that they are still seen as the “party of the rich, not ordinary people”, they still aren’t sufficiently trusted about public services and that there is a perception that they still haven’t changed enough. 42% of voters still say that they would never vote Tory.
If the Tories are serious about winning, they need to make clear that they understand concerns about the cost of living and squeezed living standards, are serious about protecting and improving public services and stand for more than just negativity, or the interests of the rich and privileged. Measures to tackle the housing crisis and education reforms to help the poorest in society are two examples of policies that could do just that.
But the Conservatives are running out of time before the next election and urgently need to develop a coherent, positive and modern narrative. “Right campaign, wrong election” has never worked as a motto in British politics and if the Tories try shifting to the right, they’ll almost certainly end up with the same result that they encountered in 2001, 2005 and in Eastleigh.