Michael Gove

It’s still the ‘nasty party’

No opposition party has ever done so badly in the polls, says Michael Gove, and none has everhad less chance of winning over the voters

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A melancholy anniversary recently passed virtually unnoticed: it is now more than a decade since the Conservative party fell behind in the polls. Never has a major opposition party been so unpopular, with so many, for so long.

If Conservatives are ever to govern again, they must do three things. They have honestly to appreciate why their party has come to this pass. They must eschew false comforts and snake-oil remedies, which will only prolong their agony. And, above all, Tories must transform the way they operate. Unless the culture of the party changes, it will never reconnect with a country that it now treats as a foreign land.

The scale of the Tory malaise is unprecedented. There have been more than 500 published polls in the past ten years. The Tories have led in only five – all in one week of September 2000 when the level of petrol tax was the issue of the moment. That surreal week apart, Labour has now led in the polls for a whole decade. What makes this even more extraordinary is that Labour has been in government for six of those ten years. No opposition has ever before failed so comprehensively to exploit traditional mid-term dissatisfaction with government.

The Tory failure to attract support is all the more striking because there is clear evidence of disaffection with the Labour government. The mood of excitement and anticipation that was tangible when Labour swept into power began to wane a long time ago. Most voters now place Labour somewhere on a scale between serious disappointment and active dislike. War has provided a respite in the polls but, underlying this, more than half the electorate is dissatisfied with Tony Blair's performance as prime minister, and with the record of his government as a whole. Most people's experience is that the NHS, public transport and crime rates have got worse under Labour.

And yet still people won't even consider voting Conservative. They won't even flirt with the Tories long enough to register support for the opposition in opinion polls as a way of sending a message to a government that has failed them. The political pendulum has stopped swinging because the Conservative party is commonly regarded as unelectable. The Tory problem is not Blair's strength; it is the party's own deep unattractiveness to voters, its lack of affinity with modern Britain.

A decade of flat-lining has resulted in a profound narrowing of the Conservative party's electoral and demographic base. The Tories now represent only their hard core, and as a consequence that core exercises a distorting influence on the party's priorities. Tory leaders waste their time reassuring the already converted instead of reaching out to those they need to win.

The Conservative party is close to extinction in metropolitan areas, which elect almost a third of all MPs. In the 1980s almost 100 Tory MPs represented metropolitan constituencies, and even in 1992 82 Conservative MPs were elected in metropolitan seats. The figure is now 18. There are only 13 Tory MPs representing ten million people in Britain's ten largest cities. There are no Tory MPs at all in numerous metropolitan areas that have significant middle-class constituencies and used to be true blue, from Bristol to Aberdeen.

The Tory party is virtually an exclusively English rump. Fourth in Scotland at the last election, its support has slumped since then. There have been no Tory MPs elected in Wales at either of the last two elections, and with the party's share of the vote continuing to slide, there is little chance of reversing this pattern at the next election.

It is a depressing picture for Conservatives. But the reality is even worse than it seems. The apparent comfort of a 1 per cent increase in the Tory vote in the 2001 election was achieved overwhelmingly in seats that the party already held. In Labour seats the Tory vote rose on average by a microscopic 0.17 per cent, and in Liberal Democrat seats the Tory vote actually fell, as it did among the social categories that have traditionally been its bedrock – ABs and C1s.

Only the record low turnout at the last election saved the Tories from an even more humiliating defeat. Post-election polling shows that if non-voters had turned out, 53 per cent of them would have voted Labour, just 19 per cent Conservative. The Tory party is in the depressing position of relying on low turnouts to stop its support at general elections falling below 30 per cent.

More worryingly still, the party's standing among younger voters has gone from bad to worse. In 1979 Tory support among 18 to 24s was actually higher than among the electorate as a whole. Even in 1997 the party did not do much worse among younger voters than among the wider electorate. But since 2001 Tory support among both 18 to 24s and 25 to 34s has slumped, and the party is now third among both these age-groups, trailing behind the Liberal Democrats; since the last party conference the number of Conservative voters under 35 has fallen below 20 per cent. In the latest polls the party was also third among the next age cohort up: 35 to 44s.

Faced with such a bleak electoral landscape there is a temptation to find comfort where one can. But many of the courses enjoined upon the party are journeys in pursuit of a mirage which would only lead the Tories further into the desert.

The first false comfort is the belief that victory will come if the party goes back to its roots and trumpets its core beliefs even more loudly. It is the analysis that underpins the decision to shift the Tory party's emphasis from 'helping the vulnerable' to demanding 'we want our money back'.

Many advocates of this approach cite the Tory victory in Romford in 2001 as proof that pugnacious campaigning on traditional Tory messages – support for the traditional family, cutting taxes, keeping the pound – brings victory. Romford provides a commendable example of how a strong local candidate who understands and reflects the priorities of local people, and campaigns really hard, can win. But it is wrong to suppose that Romford provides a model political campaign that can be rolled out across Britain with similar success, because Romford is no more typical of Britain than is the Tory party. Compared with the rest of the country, the people of Romford are disproportionately much whiter, more British-born, more Christian, older, more likely to be married, more likely to be retired, and significantly less likely to have gone to university. What plays in Romford does not play in the swathes of middle-class seats that were lost – and must be re-won – if the Conservative party is ever to form a government again.

The messages that core Tory voters enjoy hearing simply don't connect with people the party must win over: 54 per cent of current Conservative voters think that being a much more aggressive opposition to Labour would attract people back to the party; only 10 per cent of non-Conservatives agree. Two-thirds of Tory voters think the answer is for the party to give a much higher priority to keeping the pound; only one in five non-Tory voters agree. Almost 60 per cent of Conservative voters think that a commitment by the party to cut taxes would bring people back to the Tories; only 16 per cent of non-Tories agree.

Many Tories hold the view, implicitly or explicitly, that if the Conservative party is not a tax-cutting party, it is nothing. For all that Conservatives may campaign on public services, there is a tangible sense that they are really just itching to bring the subject – and the political agenda – back around to tax cuts.

Talking about tax is comforting for Tories, but it is a turn-off for voters. The British people don't need Tory politicians to tell them that tax rises have not brought better public serv ices. Unlike Tory politicians, most voters use public services, and they have to live with Labour's failures every day. For the voters, improving schools, hospitals and trains is the priority. They resent money being wasted, but don't currently see the case for cutting taxes, partly, but not only, because most voters don't understand how taxes could be cut without spending being cut. Only 21 per cent of voters think that 'taxes are higher than they need to be and could be reduced'. And polling since this month's Budget finds that nearly twice as many people trust Labour on tax as trust the Conservatives.

There is another false comfort in which some Tories indulge, especially those few who still sit in Parliament. If only we changed the leader, some think, all would be well. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Tory party's main problem is not one man, but its collective image.

The Tory party's own pollsters, YouGov, reported last autumn that almost two-thirds of voters see the Conservatives as 'still much the same party as they were under John Major'. The Conservative party, in other words, hasn't changed and, as a result, as YouGov also found, 70 per cent of voters regard the Tories as 'out of touch with modern Britain', and 86 per cent – as close to unanimity as you get in political polls – think that the Conservatives are 'not a government in waiting, and not yet ready for power'.

The party that was ejected with such gusto in 1997 had by then acquired deeply dislikeable characteristics in the eyes of voters. In the vivid words of William Hague's first speech to the Tory party conference as its leader, the Conservatives had become 'divided, arrogant, selfish and conceited ...out of touch and irrelevant'; in other words, it was 'the nasty party'.

Hague's analysis was no more than a reflection of what the voters had already said. But, instead of learning their lesson and changing their ways, the Tories then behaved as though it was the voters, and not they, who had got it wrong. The Tory platform in 2001 was 1997 once more, with feeling.

The party made a familiar political mistake, vividly described by David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, who has observed, 'When a political party offers the voters ham and eggs, and the voters say "No, thanks", its first instinct is to say, "OK, how about double ham and double eggs?". It often takes two elections, and sometimes three, to teach a party to stop talking about what matters to itself, and start talking about what matters to the voters.'

Removing their leader without altering their behaviour will only confirm to voters that the Tories really are the nasty party. Rather than the party changing its leader, the leader must change the party.

The party needs to change its rhetoric and abandon the shrill, strident, oppositionist tone that will never win affection, respect or support from the undecided. Civilised people do not begin important discussions with personal denunciations. Tory spokesmen must face the truth that the Westminster game of character assassination depresses people. Voters do not need the Tories to tell them what to think of Labour. What they want to hear is a clear, coherent and consistent idea of what Conservatives stand for.

Which is why the Tories also need to be disciplined. The party has lurched from making a commitment to the vulnerable, to stretching that commitment to include motorists and the middle classes among the vulnerable, to falling back on to the familiar ground of aggressive tax-cutting. The embrace of those in real need thus appears to have been cynical, confirming the voters' view of the party as opportunistic and inconsistent. The Tory party, having decided to change, cannot always be retreating to the laager when change proves difficult.

Unfortunately, the party which once declared that there could be no turning back seems to be happier living in the past than connecting with the modern Britain it helped to build. The Tories have become a party of Victor Meldrews raging against contemporary life. They are continually campaigning to bring things back, whether it is the Royal Yacht, respect, matron or grammar schools. This deep uncomfortableness with the way we live now doesn't inspire respect. It only confirms the voters' view that the Tories have one foot in the grave.

Until the Tories change their rhetoric, attitude and culture, abandoning shrillness, stridency, nostalgia, arrogance and aloofness, they will not secure a hearing. It does not matter how brilliant new Conservative policies are; any good ideas will be tainted by association with the toxic Tory brand. There are no short cuts to victory for the Conservatives. No silver bullets exist to slay their demons, whether fired at Tony Blair or their own leader. The party as a whole has to reform itself before it will be trusted to reform Britain.

This article is based on a presentation – 'The Case for Change' – developed by Michael Gove of the Times and Andrew Cooper of the research company Populus for the Tory pressure group C-change. A full version of the presentation, which has been shown to Tory MPs and activists, is available on the C-change website.