It strikes me that the Conservative party came to power in 1979 for the following reason.
The Labour party said, ‘The country is fucked up and needs to be fixed, and we will do so.’
And the Conservative party said, ‘The country is fucked up and needs to be fixed, and we will do so.’
And the British people saw and agreed that the country was fucked up and needed to be fixed, and decided the Conservatives’ plans were more convincing. There was only one step required on the path to judgment, and that step was determining who was more likely to fix the country properly.
The Conservative party has a much more difficult battle this year, because Labour cunningly refuse to agree that the country is fucked up and needs to be fixed. ‘Everything is fine,’ they say, ‘indulge your submerged optimism. Sure, there have been hiccoughs, but all is under control, and any attempts to say otherwise are paranoid, eschatological scare-mongering.’
So now the British people must take an extra step on the path to judgment. First, they must determine whether the country is fucked up and does need to be fixed. Then they may proceed to evaluate which party will do a better job of fixing.
But suppose the British people have determined that, as Labour says, the country is not fucked up at all? Then the Conservatives’ campaign tactics, which revolve largely around trying to convince people that they will do a better job of fixing things, appear non-sensical. In fact, the Conservatives’ policies only make sense if one believes in the fucked-upness proposition. And since Labour have cunningly refused to concede the truth of that proposition, belief in it is by no means universal.
This, I postulate, is why the Conservatives’ lead is not nearly as large as one might expect, or as it was projected to be in 1979 when conditions were similar. Labour have undermined the Conservatives’ appeal as fixer-uppers by claiming that, in fact, nothing is broken.
Therefore I propose that if the Conservatives want to win, they alter their campaigning tactics immediately. Forget ‘broken Britain,’ forget fixing Labour’s mistakes. These are not effective targets because not everyone believes they exist. Focus instead on things that virtually everyone believes in: making government more accountable, democratic, open, responsive, etc. Shoring up civil liberties and the political rights of the people. Almost nobody will argue with these. Stop blabbing on about the deficit, cuts, blah blah finance. Nobody who denies these are problems wants to listen to you going on about them; nobody who accepts these are problems is going to take your puny promises seriously.
First, begin immediately to practise what you preach re: accountability, openness, responsiveness by operating the Conservative party according to these standards. The party is a large organisation very like a government; its own record on these matters will be viewed as an accurate predictor of how the Conservatives will run the government itself. So stop the stupid infighting about selection. Stop providing local associations with shortlists chosen by non-local party leadership. Sure, you might end up with a load of straight, white male PPCs as a result, but that won’t matter because you’ll have shown that you encourage localism and democracy within your own organisation, thus giving voters more confidence that you’ll encourage it across the nation when you’re in charge.
Second, announce everything you intend to do to protect or, if necessary, restore civil liberties. Without mentioning Labour, enumerate every piece of legislation you will repeal or amend to this end. Commit to destroying the NIR and ID cards, repealing the Coroners and Justice Bill, the Digital Economy Bill (if these things have passed), the Civil Contingencies Act, RIPA, etc. If you think a Bill of Rights is desired by the populace, produce a draft and circulate it. Invite suggestions, consultations, the contributions of legal experts, constitutional experts, and so on. Actually tell the country how you intend to ensure the restoration and protection of ancient and long-held liberties.
Then leave the money stuff for later. You’re the opposition party; you don’t have access to the information you need in order to make credible promises about finance. You don’t have access to the civil service brains in the Treasury who could explain the ins and outs of the budget and recommend cuts that wouldn’t affect ‘frontline services.’ You don’t even really know where the money comes from. So quit throwing around silly figures like £7 billion. Instead, reassure people that you are committed to responsible financial management and eliminating waste, and promise that one of your first, if not your actual first, undertakings in Government will be a thorough and completely open auditing of the country’s books, after which you will commit to responsible financial practices and put the budget back into the hands of Parliament as a whole – in which every expenditure, saving, tax cut, or tax rise will have to be approved by the legislature before you can implement it.
Of course, cynicism assures me that none of this will happen, if only because the toothpaste can’t be put back into the tube. Whatever the Conservatives may say, open government, civil liberties, and responsible accounting are inconvenient roadblocks, hardships which no incoming government would deliberately impose upon itself. If you doubt this cynical worldview, all you need do is look at the glorious President Obama, who campaigned on a platform of reversing Bush’s abuses in all these regards, but since winning the election has done precisely nothing to reverse any of them.
In fact, most of Obama’s campaign was a big fat lie, if his actual record as president is anything to go by. But at least he had the sense to lie in order to win. The Conservatives, apparently, lack even that dubious distinction.