Image by BBC Radio 4 via Flickr
Margaret Thatcher – Winner of Three Election Victories
Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph was asking a couple of days ago where are the voters who will turn David Cameron into a winner in 2015. He asks:
Where does he find the votes he needs to increase his share of support from the 38 per cent he enjoys now, or even the 36 per cent he scored in 2010, to the 43 per cent he needs to be sure of governing on his own account? Could it be that whatever Mr Osborne says, the politics are not great but terrible for the Tories, and have been for 20 years?
He concludes that
The centre of gravity [in British politics] remains to the Left of the Conservatives.
This seems a common theme in debates among Conservative Party supporters – a view that their Party has lost support since the 1980s because it is seen as “the nasty party” and too right wing to reflect popular opinion.
And yet, as Mr Brogan himself notes:
one thing the polls do show is that on certain issues most closely associated with unmodernised Tory views, the public are on board – the cap on benefits, the clampdown on immigration, the “No” to Europe.
Conservative Party commentators seem still to be bewitched by that “Cameronite” analysis of British politics, in which the aim for the Conservatives must be to appeal to “the centre ground” and be seen as moderate, caring and decent.
That analysis does not bear examination.
Margaret Thatcher (now Lady Thatcher) transformed Britain. (Even her enemies agree that is true. They just don’t like the changes she brought about.)
She transformed Britain by following policies that are commonly identified as “right wing”. She was keen on lower taxes and on reducing public spending, although in reality she only succeeded in cutting the State as a proportion of the economy, and not in absolute terms. During her time in office, huge swathes of British industry were removed from the public sector and “privatised”. It is astonishing now to think that it was controversial at the time to put BP or Pickfords Removals into private hands.
Her government introduced the NHS internal market (scrapped by Tony Blair) and created OFSTED to start holding State schools to account for their performance.
On foreign policy, she was famously Eurosceptic – at least once experience had taught her the dangers to British national independence of the EU.
She was robust on immigration, talking about indigenous people feeling “swamped” when immigration rates were high.
On issue after issue, she took a robust, populist stance. As a result, she won three general elections, each time receiving more than 40% of the vote and a big overall majority.
Who made up her votes then? Certainly, a part was made up of the Conservative “core vote” – people with whom David Cameron and the Tory High Command feel comfortable. As Mr Cameron is finding, though, that core vote is not enough to win.
Any Tory leader who wants an overall majority must build a coalition. He needs more than that core vote. David Cameron (and it seems Benedict Brogan) believe that those extra votes will be found in the centre. But that is a poor seam of votes to mine, not least because the territory is already occupied by the Liberal Democrats.
Lady Thatcher’s electoral success came from building a coalition, not with the centre, but with that often-overlooked part of the British electorate – what the Telegraph at the time christened “Mondeo man”. People like small builders, electricians and plumbers. Daily Mail readers. People who lived in council houses, and grabbed the opportunity to buy them and thus own a stake in the country that they had previously believed they would never have.
People who work hard, support their families, and are upset at the poor quality of their children’s schools – but can’t afford to send them to private schools.
Hard-working people who are hardest hit by paying taxes. The rich – or indeed, Ed Miliband’s “squeezed middle” – are not hurt as hard by those taxes. They can afford to pay them. Mondeo man – Thatcher’s constituency – can’t afford it. They aren’t hurt by rubbish State schools, because their children go to private schools. Mondeo man – Thatcher’s constituency – is patronised and ignored when he complains about lack of discipline. They aren’t hurt when the NHS lets them down, because BUPA looks after their medical care. Mondeo man – Thatcher’s constituency – has to wait for weeks to find out whether he has cancer.
Those people – what she used to call the “lower middle class” – were Thatcher’s people. She instinctively identified with them. And the Tory Party hierarchy despised her for it. Her opponents in the party – people exactly like David Cameron – thought her a mean-minded little fishwife for it. They eventually pushed her out of the party leadership in no small part because of it. But she it was who won those three elections outright, and it was her people who gave her the votes to do so.
So here, I believe, is the reason for David Cameron’s miserable lack of electoral success. (He won hardly any more votes in 2010 than the Tories got under Michael Howard in 2005.) His analysis of British politics is dead wrong.
David Cameron memorably called himself “the heir to Blair”, and acts as such, thinking that he can win votes in the centre by doing so. In the process, he alienates Mondeo man. In contrast, Margaret Thatcher offered him the chance to buy his council house, and the hope of lower taxes. She offered support for people working hard to support their families and praised them for doing so. She offered them lower taxes and a spirited economy in which getting ahead was respected not spat upon.
I don’t believe British politics has changed all that much. I don’t share Benedict Brogan’s analysis that the country has somehow magically swung to the Left in the last 20 years, and now wants a nanny state to look after it.
David Cameron talks of austerity in terms of how much people are hurt by public spending cuts. But Mondeo man wants the cuts – bring them on! – if they mean the taxman can get off his back a bit.
So where does Mondeo man turn? His response so far has been to turn his back on politics, because no politicians offer anything for him. Except that one party does offer him everything he wants – UKIP. In practically every policy area, UKIP is aligned with his ideas. They have failed to get that message across to him, and right now he believes UKIP only cares about the EU. Sure, he agrees with UKIP about that – but what about his taxes?
Thus if UKIP reach out to him, there is a rich seam of votes to be had. UKIP will not win its first MPs by proclaiming that Britain should leave the EU (though of course it should). They will win them with that much simpler and more fundamental message: LOW TAXES AND SMALL GOVERNMENT.
That section of the electorate to whom Lady Thatcher reached out, and whom she took away from the Labour Party, would like a bit of that, please.
David Cameron is the heir to Blair, and has therefore made the Conservative Party unelectable in its own right.
Image by European Parliament via Flickr
Nigel Farage is the heir to Thatcher. He has been reluctant to claim that mantle so far. He should have the courage to do so. There are millions of votes for his party in reaching out to that disenfranchised group in British politics who carried Lady Thatcher on her way.