Why are the Tories not racing away with this election?

Published by The Daily Telegraph (1st April, 2015)

George Osborne hit the campaign trail in Hove yesterday, posing for cheesy pictures as he made pizzas in a restaurant. Outside, a gaggle of journalists stood around chatting with his aides as blustery winds blew along the Sussex coast and the Chancellor bragged about his stewardship of the economy. He has much to boast about, with figures revealing the highest rate of annual growth for nine years and record new jobs.

This prosperous constituency is precisely the sort of place the Tories must win to retain power. They have a terrific locally born candidate in Graham Cox, former head of Sussex CID and just the sort of sensible, liberal Conservative needed to win such a seat. His Labour opponent is a former special adviser and political insider. The local authority is the only Green-run council in the country and cannot even sort out rubbish collection and recycling. Above all, this bellwether seat has backed the winning party since Tony Blair took power in 1997, reflecting the national outcome with uncanny accuracy.

Yet the battle for Hove remains too close to call with any degree of certainty – just like the struggle for Downing Street. As they roll out their campaigns, the two main parties are fighting defensive strategies designed to get enough core voters out on May 7 to limp past the finishing post in first place. The lead in the polls oscillates almost daily from one to the other. Yet behind this fraught contest lies a question largely being ignored: why are the Tories not romping home to victory?

They have, after all, a superb economic story to sell. Despite continuing weakness on pay and public finances, Osborne defied critics both at home and abroad to deliver the fastest-growing economy among major developed nations. And the Tories confront an opposition that looks extraordinarily confused on this central issue, its contorted policies a legacy of inept profligacy when previously in office. ‘There is real uncertainty about what path the Labour Party want to follow,’ concludes the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The Conservatives have a raft of other factors running in their favour, from a Prime Minister with far better approval ratings than his main rival for the job to a fatter war chest, courtesy of the unheralded efforts of party co-chairman Lord Feldman. David Cameron seems remarkably unscarred by his five years in office, having avoided the psychological wounds that ended up afflicting his predecessors. He faces a Labour leader the public views – rightly or wrongly – as weak, weird and not up to the job of running our nation. On top of that, Ed Miliband’s behaviour towards his brother seems strange to most people.

Unpopular leaders and lack of economic credibility have proved insurmountable obstacles for previous oppositions, while it is more than four decades since a party regained power after a single term in opposition. Yes, the rise of multi-party politics has made electoral mathematics more problematic, requiring mainstream parties to deploy different tactics on a diffuse range of interlocked battlefronts while their joint vote share appears in historic decline. But it still remains pertinent to ask why Mr Cameron is fighting for his political life and, for all his fine words, cannot be confident of capturing a Tory majority.

The answer can be found back in Hove, which the Tories regained with a 1,868 majority in 2010. Osborne’s success is clearly visible there with unemployment halved since the last election, while Conservative canvassers claim Ukip’s presence is causing Labour bigger problems in the working-class area of Portslade. But the key issues on doorsteps are those old family favourites of schools, health and housing – and the party remains dogged by perceptions it is uncaring and untrustworthy on public services. “The jobs story here is fantastic,” says Mr Cox. “But there is still this nasty image problem we have not overcome.”

You can imagine the consequences if a business discovered a problem with its brand deterring customers but failed to fix it. Yet for more than a decade it has been clear many voters see the Tories as toxic, a “nasty” party detached from problems of ordinary people and serving the interests of the rich. This message is never popular with party workers, largely older and wealthier than the rest of the electorate, yet it remains true. It is why surprising happiness with the health service, support for benefit reforms and endorsement of the Tories’ economic approach has not translated into a winning margin.

Mr Cameron sought to rectify this in opposition, only to be blown off course by the storms of austerity following the banking crisis. At least he made his “pale and male” party start to look more like the nation, one welcome result being that the Tories have selected more candidates from ethnic minorities in safe seats than their main rivals. But the ultimate proof of the failure of modernisation was seen in the Coalition: the public did not trust the Tories enough to let them govern alone.

This image problem has only worsened in government. Partly this is the nature of coalition politics, differences exaggerated by both parties for tactical reasons. But it has also been due to policies such as bungled health reforms and the cut in top rate tax, which even Downing Street insiders concede was stupid politics despite being smart economics. And it’s also down to the relish with which some figures seemed to embrace the painful shrinking of the state.

What should the Tories have done? The boldest ideas from opposition should have been championed from the start in government instead of being sidelined. Reforms should have been seen solely through the prism of helping the poorest, not just slashing costs and looking strong. Even in education, where this was the case, the tone against teachers often sounded intemperate. And at heart of the much-maligned and muddled Big Society were transformative ideas to reduce central power and revive the cohesion of communities, while curtailing private-sector behemoths on behalf of consumers as readily as curbing state bureaucracies.

Failure to address the toxic image problem means that party strategists often complain their policies are popular until revealed to be coming from Conservatives. Yet as one ex-Cabinet minister told me, this is “a dangerous alibi” and no different to Labour blaming the media for the unpopularity of its own policies. The Tory problem remains a perceived attitude towards public services and a need to reassure a wary electorate. It is too late to change now as the battle for Britain begins, but this is why candidates end up bemoaning the failure of economic success to cut through to ungrateful voters. It is why female voters, the bedrock of post-war Tory electoral success, are more likely to vote Labour. And it is why marginals such as Hove are up for grabs.

Two political tribes that have held power for a century between them are failing to fix their core problems. Labour ignores its well-earned reputation for economic incompetence, still focused mainly on spending other people’s money, while the Tories have not tackled their key brand defect. The result is Britain must endure a dreary, negative and uninspiring campaign with one side saying the other cannot be trusted on the economy and the other hurling similar jibes on the health service. Then politicians wonder why the public is becoming disengaged.

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