Friday, July 16, 2004
An inner city Safe Labour seat with a eye wateringly tight finish, Lib Dems picking up votes among ethnic minorities with their anti-war stand, Tories go from second to third.
The similarities between the recent Birmingham and Leicester results and Brent East were so obvious that even political journalists spotted them. There were also comforting crumbs for the Tories. Although the vote slipped, it did not do so by much and neither of these seats had been won in either 1983 or 1987 (although the Birmingham seat had fallen in a similar byelection in the 1970s). Almost like the Lib Dems in the recent Euro results. So the Tories didn't do so badly.
But they did. The easy and convenient answer to the Lib Dems leapfrogging over the Tories in Brent East was that IDS was a liablility. The idea that a man who was in charge when the Tories went from 20% behind in the polls to 5% ahead was a liability is testament to the strange political isolation that affects the denizens of parliament, and the lobbyists, support staff and journalists that surround them. The Tories may be dazzling in Parliament and with stunning policy ideas but they are treading water, a bit like Hague really. If the constituency parties had the guts to tell their MPs that they would pay the consequances of ignoring the volunteers' superior political antanae then perhaps the Tories would not be in the mess that they are now. I suppose this is the price of deference.
On an aside this also definitely puts the bullet in the more subtle condemnation of IDS, that his poor organising skills were the reason to dump him. That they put a barrister in the place of an army officer is indicative that this was not a real reason. However the fact was that in the last election I had got the definate impression from the news that the Tory vote had held its own - from the Tory spin and the journalists reluctantly repeating it. This time around I had to find this out for myself. No matter how many leaflets were delivered, if you can't spin a disapointing result then you've failed the organisation test.
However there is one area where the Tories are still paying for an IDS miscalculation and that is on the war. There was an argument, a tiny argument admittedly, as to what side the Tories should take before the war. I argued, as did my comrade Christopher Montgomery, that the party's interest was to be mildly sceptical towards the war - like the Democrats in America. That way if the war went well (OK if it was popular afterwards) the Tories could quietly forget their probing questions and conditions on support. If the war turned out badly - which in public opinion terms it has - then the Tories could trumpet their brave and prescient opposition. Their chosen strategy, we warned (look I got something right, I'm not used to it) would simply get them nowhere if the war was won and would stand in the way of a post war recovery.
The Tories made themselves irrelevant on a major issue, as we warned. When the war slips from public conciousness then the Tories go up, when the war hits the headlines then the Lib Dems go up. Over the long run this at least gives the Tories the consolation that memories of the war will wear out. Unfortunately the next general election is not going to be fought out in the long run.
IDS out of a matter of personal loyalty stuck to his neo-conservative friends. Michael Howard, who is not in the neocon orbit, is saddled with this strategic mistake.
Of course the peace movement also messed up, but unlike the Conservative Party they don't win elections (as RESPECT showed, although the hyper-partisan Michael Crick predicted on Newsnight that they would get more votes than the Tories in Leicester South). RESPECT has to be admitted as a failure. The Socialist Worker's Party and the Muslim Association of Great Britain will probably win twenty council seats if they have a good run. Their defeatism has no real echo amongst an antiwar public, and their failure to win a European Parliament seat means that obscurity beckons. Loyalty to the Labour Party is such a bad option for advancing the anti-interventionist case that even George Galloway has worked it out. Dallying with the Liberal Democrats may seem to be a good idea at the moment, however the only way they will get into power is by coalition - probably with Labour.
Which leaves the Conservatives. The problem with the peace movement is that it is chock full of Trots. While they are good at organising and essential when the cause is unpopular, they scare off Tories. They are also repelled by Tories and so would prefer to keep losing the argument on the war rather than see to help a Tory. Many of the CND types who also make up the antiwar coalition (the third element being whichever cultural community feels that it is being attacked, whether Serb, Croat or Muslim) would put aside their distaste for the Tories because they care more for peace than they do for perpetual revolution. So why haven't they?
Well they're timid. The Trots do not believe in non-violence. The Trots organise better than the CND vicars. The CND hippies are scared that they will be exposed as window dressing if they carry out any politically astute moves. And so they trail behind the Trots. Again. And lose even when the public are behind them. Again.
Without an antiwar party that can win elections, Blair will be immune no matter what the unpopularity. We'd still have the poll tax if opposition to it was confined to the Liberal Democrats. It was the fact that it could win Labour votes, and so government, that scared the Tories. The simple fact is that the peace movement needs the Tories - and more than the Tories need them. Without one of the two main parties the peace movement is simply a hamster on a permanent wheel of outraged protest.
There are things that the CND types can do. They can allow for little Englander arguments to be made by peace types. Instead of going on about an Arab right to Palestine with all the anti-semitic connotations that we all know is behind this, they could simply ask where Iraq (or Kosovo, or Bosnia, or East Timor) are on the map. If you don't know, vote no. Union Jacks and St George crosses could be prominently displayed in all antiwar demonstrations. Antiwar Tories could be invited to speak as key note speakers, including to demos in their constituencies.
However the Tories still need to win elections, and so far they have thrown out the most potent vote winner on the market. Is there a way out of this for the Tories? This is the bit where I'm supposed to offer a path that if the Tories would only follow it then they would all be sorted, in the smug and comfortable knowledge that they will not. The Conservatives may be able to pull off turning on a penny, as they did to their benefit on tuition fees. Sadly the time may have passed and the Conservatives may have allowed the single biggest vote getter in the next election to simply sail by.
If every major non-American pro war government falls except for Blair (and Howard and Berlusconi are the only ones left), then this will be the Conservatives' payment for their blinkered attachment to all things American. Let's hope it's their last payment.
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