People want to see a difference between the UK's political parties. Time is running out for Cameron to develop a Big Idea, but it can still be done.
When historians look back at what happened in Eastleigh, it won’t be the Lib Dems holding on to one of their only safe seats that will interested them; it will be that the Tories came third and Labour came fourth.
UKIP readers will now of course be shouting at their screens, advising politely, I’m sure, that the real story here is UKIP coming of age and, indeed, second. But they’re wrong; it’s not. UKIP coming second is merely the clearest symptom yet of a greater malaise people in the UK are feeling. They are fed up; they are just about ready to give up on our politics.
Make no mistake: the UKIP vote in Eastleigh was a protest vote. Not like the ones we used to see go to the Lib Dems; it is not just a mid-term protest vote, it is something deeper. It was not a protest against any particular party or indeed any particular polices; it was a protest against our politics in general.
UKIP did not win votes, the other parties lost them. The voters of Eastleigh did not go out to the voting booth to vote for UKIP policies. Like myself, I doubt they’re fully clued-up on what their policies are. The truth is UKIP’s winning formula does not involve articulating what they would do in government. It involves acting as a commentator and a finger-pointer.
To its credit, UKIP has capitalised on the anti-politics feel which has been building in this country since disappointment first began setting in with Blair. That is to say since the public began to realise he could not bring about the New Jerusalem. Expenses scandals, sex scandals, speeding fine scandals, and any other type of Westminster scandal going have all played there part, but the anti-political movement is routed in the third way consensus – the ‘appeal to all men’, middle-of-the-road approach to politics.
This anti-politics vote will carry on and spread away from the fan-fares of by-elections and European elections and into the serious business of the General Election if the Tories or Labour don’t put a stop it.
It is not necessary the individual policies people don’t like and, by extension, there is no specific need for the parties to address the anti-politics vote by tacking left or right. The problem is people just don’t know what politicians and their parties stand for anymore.
In the Conservative Party, the same people have been in charge since 1997. The advisers have become the ministers and the ministers have become the advisers; all the people around them have stayed the same. These people lost in 1997 and ever since have struggled to work out what exactly it is they stand for. Often they have hidden from standing for anything.
Ever since the Conservative Party began progressively losing its identity, it has failed to win a General Election. Add in the scandals, the economic climate, and coalition government – which is identity-void, ‘third way consensus’ politics on steroids – and this anti-politics climate has grown.
The British people are fed up with the middle man approach to politics – much to UKIP’s benefit. The UK Independence Party has received more votes in four of the twelve by-elections in this parliament than the largest party, the Conservatives, who have come third or worse in eight of them.
But the Conservatives can start to win again, not necessarily by making policy announcements, like the in/out referendum (though of course these might help), but by finding their soul.
David Cameron was right to detoxify the Conservative brand in 2005 and move away from the image of the nasty party but what he failed to do was to grasp what he stands for; his Big Idea – what makes the Conservatives stand apart from other parties.
In Australia, Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party is on course to win a landslide election; ironically, with a little help from David Cameron. Abbott’s autobiography explains how he looked to the UK and saw what David Cameron had done in modernising and detoxifying the Conservative Party. He wrote that this was what was needed for his Liberals, but he also stated that the Liberal Party must not forget what makes it different to the other parties.
Fast forward to 2013 and the Liberals stand tall as the party of small state, sound economics, and family values. That is Abbott’s Big Idea.
This difference between the parties is lost here in the UK. Sure, they seem to argue a lot in the chamber. Likewise, people may hold a preference for one policy or leader over another. But what really makes Dave different from Nick, or, indeed, Ed? If the Conservatives want to start winning again they have to counter the anti-politics vote by making this distinction easy.
Margret Thatcher won landslides; she won seats that the Tories under this current leadership failed to, and couldn't dream of winning. She was not universally liked, nor did she seek approval. She made bold decisions based on a guiding ideological vision. When it came to the ballot box people knew what she stood for; they may not have liked her but they respected and voted for the vision she had.
Time is running out for Cameron to decide what he stands for. But it can still be done. A good start would be bringing in the new conservative ideological vision being modelled by five of his backbenchers: Chris Heaton-Harris, Steven Baker, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, and Jesse Norman.
These five 2010 intakes are not just rising stars of the Conservative Party; they are and must be the future of the party. They do have individual policies which would befit the nation but, more importantly, they are fashioning a new conservative ideological vision.
They are young, modern Conservatives who can’t be put into the 80s/90s fractions of the Party. They are eurosceptic but can’t be described as head bangers. They are companionate Conservatives but believe strongly in the small state. They disagree with the status quo of our economy and would favour a move from our crony capitalism to a more organic construction. They are defenders of civil liberties and believe in family values. They have, in essence, a Big Idea.
Eastleigh has spoken; it is done with the common-ground ‘third way’. People want to see a difference between the parties. If Cameron can capture and champion the emerging conservative ideology which is simmering under him, it may be his best chance of wrestling the impetus from UKIP and securing a Conservative majority government.