The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 27th, 2005

As the unsayable becomes sayable, Tory fortunes rise

One opinion poll does not make a political new dawn. Last week an ICM poll in The Guardian found that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives had fallen from nine percentage points to only three. Then on Friday a Mori poll in the Financial Times suggested that Labour now had only a two-point lead.

Not surprisingly the Conservatives rejoiced. But all too soon it appeared to be a false dawn. Also on Friday a YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph reported bad news for them. Whereas last month, according to YouGov, the two parties were only one percentage point apart, Labour had now regained its six-point lead and the Conservatives appeared to be back to where they were in the political doldrums.

All the same something new is happening. The political wind really is beginning to change; the tide is beginning to turn. After not months but years of despair and self-doubt — self-loathing even — the Conservatives are beginning to rediscover themselves.

They are beginning to abandon their modernist attempts to steal new Labour clothes. They are feeling less ashamed of naked Conservatism. They are even beginning — though who only a few weeks ago would have thought it remotely possible? — to set the agenda and to scare Labour strategists into defensive, copycat reactions.

I don’t think this has much to do with the Conservatives’ new political orgasmatron, the American Voter Vault database programme, or Lynton Crosby, their sophisticated new campaign director. I think his recent successes in rallying and marketing the Conservatives would have been impossible if the political tide had not subtly begun to turn already. The interesting question is what has been making it turn.

It is clearly not yet anything to do with the economy or with public contempt for the prime minister’s lies about Iraq.

This change is due to the persistent, indefatigable efforts over many years of many individuals and small groups — not focus groups or highly paid spin doctors and publicity juju men, but intelligent and idealistic people on the right and centre right — who have tried to understand what matters in British society and to explain it to others.

Some of them are even journalists. But most are independent-minded people in think tanks and research groups. They have quietly and unglamorously been carrying the small “c” conservative torch where most Conservative politicians have been failing to lead at all, or even to agree among themselves. In the midst of the bitter Tory rout they have been preparing the intellectual way for a real opposition.

If you consider immigration and asylum, the recent change in public and political perception is due almost entirely to one man.

In 2001 it was impossible to excite the electorate about the chaos of the immigration system. William Hague’s attempts to do so in his campaign blew up in his face. He was accused of playing the race card and even his middle-class supporters were embarrassed. But whatever his motives, he was right.

The unacceptable truth was (then as now) that there was no immigration policy: immigration into this country was largely out of control; the asylum system was being abused in huge numbers with impunity; great social strains were emerging as a result; and the public had been lied to for years about all this. However, the electorate simply wasn’t prepared at that time to hear the truth.

Now it is. The Mori poll for the Financial Times showed that immigration and asylum were now rated the single most important issue by 23% of the electorate and one of the most important two or three by 40%. And it is not only indigenous people who are worried — 52% of ethnic minorities are, too (according to Mori in 2003), and probably more today.

So when at the end of January this year Michael Howard started talking tough on immigration, the Labour strategists — instead of sneering about Tories playing the race card or the numbers game — were panicked into talking tough too. They find themselves on the back foot over immigration largely because of the work of Sir Andrew Green, a former diplomat who runs a small independent research group called Migrationwatch UK.

Almost single-handedly and by using the government’s own figures he has blasted away the nonsense and right-on platitudes about immigration numbers and asylum abuse. It cannot be much fun; the work is highly contentious and rather boring too. It is difficult to accuse him of racism, but he is loathed in Whitehall, not least because the mandarins can never find anything wrong with his figures. Now that the media trusts them too, and publicises them, and the public believes them, the Conservatives are able to campaign about immigration without being howled down as racists.

What’s more, new Labour is being forced by the facts on to conservative territory, to follow a Tory lead. The change of mood here is almost amazing. The unsayable has become sayable and Labour policy. In mid-February the Conservatives revealed plans for compulsory health checks on migrants — taking a leaf from new Labour, they were announcing something they’d announced before — and Labour responded, almost incredibly, by saying that such health checks were its policy too.

There are signs of the same change in the national conversation about public spending. For years the orthodoxy has been that more public spending must be better. People against more public spending were by definition heartless, just as privatisation and profit were heartless. A Labour politician had only to cry “Tory cuts” to win any argument.

But after Labour boosted budgets by tens of billions in its second term the Conservatives produced their meticulous James review of what the taxpayer had got in return. Public-spending cuts are beginning to mean cutting waste, not cutting services.

It was the Tories’ commissioning of the James review that bumped the Labour government into commissioning its own Gershon review of the same subject — waste. New Labour now talks of cuts. But behind both reports is the impetus of many years of solid, unfashionable research by think tanks, and the popular versions of it put out by the media. The Institute of Economic Affairs, Civitas, the Centre for Policy Studies, Politea and Reform — and others — have for years been doggedly trying to point out the errors of the centre left orthodoxy: the dangers of state monopolies, of overregulation, over-taxation and welfare dependency.

Reform opened its presentation last week of its new Manifesto for Reform by stating that a third of the population in the UK received more than half of its income from the state. People are beginning to believe it. Politicians are beginning to feel they can say it without being seen as heartless, capitalist little Englanders.

This may not be a new dawn, but it is the beginning of the end of a long Conservative night, whatever the polls say.