The Tories have no real reason to be disappointed. They won the plurality of the vote in England, something that calls into question the legitimacy of any measure effective on England that is passed only with the help of Welsh and Scottish members. They have a great deal of recognized and young talent among the 50 new members, areas where the party has been noticably lacking. They have dispelled the myth that they cannot win in cities any more with their advances in London. They have seen off the recent challenges of the Lib Dems in many areas. And they took control of 3 more county councils on the night of the election, something that is always good for local parties.
And yet they could have done so much more. They failed to win too many seats by fewer than 1000 votes. That bodes well for next time, but it is a bitter pill to swallow this time. The suggestion that the failure to make Europe an election issue led to them losing about 25 seats because of the number who voted for UKIP or Veritas in those seats will nag them for a while yet. The fact that the polls, which did turn out to be quite accurate in the end, much to my surprise, showed that the Tory momentum stalled when the campaign started concentrating on Tony Blair’s character will be frustrating to many.
Yet these are all “might-have-beens” and not worth dwelling on. The worst possible thing for the Tories is for them to cry woe and to descend into some futile search for a Conservative philosophy or to blame established principles like the free market. As John O’Sullivan has pointed out, the Tories are on the verge of becoming the party of the working class given the other parties’ preoccupation with the obsessions of the middle classes (which includes quite a few stinking rich types these days). That will be a good thing and it should be allowed to happen, however much the Guardianistas might sneer at the unsophisticated nature of the policies that appeal to the working class.
There are also rumblings that the Tories should embrace PR. Why ever should they? If the Tories can’t win with the current biased system, they certainly are never going to win under PR, which will impose a permanent Lib-Lab pact on the country (at least until there is a quiet revoloution and the Tories get in on a platform of abolishing PR).
The problem the Tories face is not an electoral one, it is a cultural one. It is the tragedy of the Thatcher years that while Mrs T was rebuilding the country’s economic self-reliance, the welfare state and its apparatus were allowed to stand virtually unmolested. As a result, too many individuals still believe that when there is a problem, government is the one that should sort it out. This cultural teat-suckling threatens even the Thatcherite economic settlement. If most people believe the railways would be better off run by government, despite a generation’s evidence to the contrary, what would be next? Regulators are seen as good guys, not re-tape wielding bureaucrats. This is the problem the Tories need to solve.
In a brief interlude between things settling down and me jetting off to England for some work-related business, I have a few minutes to mention what I think of the election results. While commentators have been casting gloom and doom on the prospects for their opponents, I think every party involved in this election will have some degree of satifaction.
For Labour, Tony Blair can be happy that he saw off the greatest electorate threat to his position – the Iraq war – with comparative ease. He has been returned with a majority he would have been ecstatic with in 1997 and even 2001. To be sure, he has lost some ground to the Liberal Democrats in areas where the public sector middle class is strong and some to the Tories in their former South-Eastern stronghold. “Redistricting” will lose Labour more seats next time, but that won’t be his problem. Electorally, Tony Blair remains strong.
Politically, however, Tony Blair is much weakened. The early days of the cabinet reshuffle showed the cack-handed management style that has been his trademark for some time. There are suggestions that John Prescott was seen shouting in the street into his mobile phone in protest at losing half his Department to David Milliband. The Blunkett re-entry was also handled badly. Moreover, with the loss of many Blairites and the survival of the left wing, he is faced with the likelihood of a far more fractious party. The chances of anything like Foundation Hospitals getting through are pretty low. In that sense, the election saw the end of the New Labour experiment. Expect this government to look far more like a traditional Labour government than the last two have.
Moreover, I expect Blair to start hitting what the late Thatcher and Major governments called “banana skins.” The European Constitution referendum is a huge problem that Blair will be hoping to avoid. But I don’t think France will actually reject the Constitution, just as she failed narrowly to reject Maastricht. The Dutch may also fail to come to Blair’s rescue, especially if France votes yes. Then the elephant in the living room will begin to trumpet loudly. And all this will happen when Blair is President of the European Union.
At about the same time, the G8 summit could be a disaster. Most chairmen of G8 summits choose nice touchy-feely subjects to discuss so that they can all come out with a nice glow. Blair, however, has chosen to devote this one to climate change, so that he can show he has spent a great deal of political capital in getting the US on board. Iraq was worth it because we are going to have market mechanisms for emissions trading! Huzzah! The trouble is, it ain’t gonna happen. Bush will refuse to sign up to at least one of the statements Blair thinks he will embrace and the PM will have egg on his face and Chirac smirking behind his back. Unless Blair is deliberately planning this as the moment when he delivers High Grant’s speech repudiating the US President from Love Actually, then this will be a fiasco. Actually, delivering that speech would be a fiasco too. What is the point of annoying the most powerful country in the world and single-handedly destabilizing the Atlantic Alliance? Whatever happens, this is going to be a mess.
So it is quite possible that by the end of the Summer, Blair could be fatally wounded. He has to pull off two more miracles to get through the Constitution referendum and the G8 summit unscathed. I wouldn’t put it past him, but this Summer may be his greatest challenge yet.
Working on a chain gang?
Those outside the UK who want to understand a little about how the country’s public political sphere is steadily disintegrating, need look no further than the musings of Home Office Minister Hazel Blears on making yobs wear US-style chain gang uniforms (sadly minus the chains) when on community service.
Here we have an eminently sensible idea, that would be wildly popular (certainly if Sky News’s unscientific poll is anything to go by), that would help restore public faith in the judicial system just a tiny little bit; and what else do we know about it?
- That it won’t happen. Not a chance – even if by some miracle the sandal-wearing ex-academics and union timeservers who make up the modern Parliamentary Labour Party were to vote for it, you know that the judges would find a way of throwing it out.
- That all coverage in the media of the idea is dominated by outraged squeals from the dozens of pressure-groups which exist to further the interests of criminals
- That the Conservative party is too busy with its favourite internal pastime to apparently make any comment on the proposals
- And, most telling of all, that in spite of the fact that they know it will never happen, the Labour leadership makes the suggestion at all: they have no intention of implementing it, but it won’t hurt them to sound tough.
A government that cynically suggests something that it knows its own chums in the establishment won’t allow to happen just to sound good to the voters while the opposition won’t call them on it (or even, gosh, push them to go ahead and introduce it) with the criminal lobby dominating the airwaves. Is it any wonder people have lost faith in the political and judicial systems?