Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Conservatives in Manchester (II)

Hague and Pickles were careful to damp down expectations of a Conservative victory when they spoke yesterday. They pointed out that it would take the greatest Conservative voting swing since 1931 for them to gain an absolute majority. This was presented as a warning to Conservative party workers not to be complacent, not to assume that the Labour melt-down would automatically propel their party into office.

I suspect that the message was also directed at the media. The Conservative leadership certainly does not want appear to be triumphalist, but it may be more than that. Private polling may be supporting what many of us expect: that, on present voting intentions, there will be a hung parliament after the next election. They would prefer to be able to say "I told you so" to the editors, rather than the other way round.

No doubt many Conservative activists are salivating at the thought of another 40+ majority alla Thatcher 1979. They should remember that there was only one similarity between then and now: a discredited Labour government had only just started pulling itself out of a hole with international financial support.

The arithmetic is different: Callaghan in 1979 did not have an overall majority; Brown still has a nominal superiority of over fifty.

The parties were different. In 1979, the Conservatives could argue that they were providing a free-market alternative to failed socialism. In 1996, Brown and Blair took economic liberalism on board and, apart from a change in the language since Brown became prime minister, the New Labour project has hardly deviated thereafter. Cameron and company seem to be presenting themselves as better managers - rather as Blair did in 1997 - not offering a different philosophy.

Finally, there is the position of the third party. The Liberals under David Steel had restored confidence in the UK economy by going into coalition with Callaghan, quitting in 1978 when the crisis was over. The party was still punished at the ballot for its association with Labour, when the only alternative was seen to be Mrs Thatcher. Thirty years later, the parliamentary third party, the Liberal Democrats, is ten times the size of its 1979 counterpart and far from being seen as a natural supporter of New Labour. If people merely want to vote "not Labour", there is a realistic choice, depending on where they live.

No wonder the Conservatives are wooing Liberal Democrat supporters. This morning's conference session on local government, with its obsession with potholes, traffic lights and bendy-buses looked like a videoconferencing version of a classic LD Focus leaflet.

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