Why did so many voters desert us for New Labour?

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The Independent Culture
DURING THE few weeks of the general election campaign, a Scottish MP who had previously resigned as a minister, having been accused of threatening someone with an axe, was forced to resign his candidacy in a scandal. The Scottish Party chairman, mooted as a replacement, had to stand down, having been accused by colleagues of homosexual relationships. Two former government ministers were embroiled in the so-called "cash-for-questions" affair. A Parliamentary Private Secretary was photographed in a park embracing a 17-year-old Soho night-club hostess.

With all this going on, at times it seemed that the only strategy the Tory campaign could cling to was: "I am glad you brought that up, because it is just what we wanted to talk about."

Damaging though all of these events were, and impossible though they made it to develop and implement a successful campaign, they are not the real explanation of our defeat. I would like to offer four such reasons.

First, the result was a vote against Conservatives, not Conservatism. Our research showed that the basic attitudes of most voters have changed very little over the last decade. And, although there are, and always have been, important differences, their instincts are generally similar to those of most Conservative activists. Yet, millions of people thought hard about how to defend our legacy and our common outlook and then voted for Labour.

Why? Because, right or wrongly, they saw us as arrogant, smug, sleazy, weak, incompetent and divided. They desperately wanted a change, and were prepared to take a risk to achieve it, although Tony Blair understood, as Neil Kinnock did not, that there were strict limits to the willingness to take risks.

Second, it was not just us they disliked for being Conservative: it was themselves they disliked. They began to see voting Conservative as something you did only if you were greedy. It was something you did for yourself, not for the country. This feeling had already begun to take hold in 1992, and is one of the explanations for the fact that opinion polls in 1992 underestimated our support.

In the Eighties, people felt that by voting Conservative they were doing something for the country, and not just themselves. We had a project (curing the "British disease" of high inflation, over-regulation and poor industrial relations) that they thought was worthwhile. By 1992, they had begun to feel that the project was complete and that we did not have a new one. The only reason they could think of to vote for us was to protect their personal economic position from Neil Kinnock and his tax plans. They were embarrassed about this, and did not tell the pollsters. Yet, on the day, they came out and voted Conservative once more.

When the Government was forced to raise taxes temporarily, to keep public finances sound after sterling left the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), the voters turned on us in fury. Whatever we did later, we could not counter the fact that, as they saw it, we had betrayed their one reason for voting for us. It was a reason they had, in any case, been rather hesitant and defensive about. With hindsight, from the end of 1992 the government was probably doomed.

Perhaps some of the losses could have been reduced if we had succeeded in establishing a clear mission for the final term. The criticism that the government did not know what it stood for is wrong. So is the suggestion that it ran out of ideas. The Major government was creative and imaginative in many policy areas, and even at its end it produced an exciting and fresh manifesto.

However, after three terms, with a small majority, a cynical press and a great deal of disunity, the challenge of rethinking and selling our purpose - "why" we were needed, rather than "what" we stood for - proved impossible. It is the task for Opposition, which William Hague is taking up with vigour.

The result of this failure is that voters were left with New Labour's project - one that has been spectacularly successful. The project is to "get rid of the awful Tories". The voters wanted this project to succeed. So, every time Blair made a U-turn, the public cheered him, and every time he stamped on a dissident they cheered him. They may or may not have liked certain decisions in themselves, but they could see that they were necessary.

Without a clear and fresh purpose, the Conservative Party in 1997 was like the Winter of Discontent running for office - we were the very problem the voters were tying to solve.

The third reason for the defeat of the Conservatives was our failure to come to grips with New Labour. The fall of the Berlin Wall, four election defeats, the intellectual victory of Thatcherism, class changes in Britain, and the leadership of Tony Blair, have changed the Labour Party for ever. We did not adjust to this properly. Notwithstanding a decision to pursue a single, simple strategy ("New Labour, New Danger"), we made a whole range of inconsistent, and often unconvincing, attacks on our opponents. These included saying they were jackdaws ("Good," replied the voter), and that they hadn't really changed ("They have," replied the voter). Often we appeared to be arguing that New Labour was a good thing, and that the public only needed to worry about "old" Labour.

The fourth reason for defeat was the successful use by the Labour Party of certain campaign techniques. The media's obsession with these techniques was rather ridiculous. Sometimes they seemed to believe that we were both using computers to generate lines of argument. They were often more interested in reporting on the rapidity of rebuttal than on its content. I do not believe that any of this was anywhere near as important or impressive as the reporting suggests. Nevertheless, it did have some impact on the result.

The financial problems the Conservative Party faced in 1992 absorbed the energy and time of the Central Office team for a long period after the election. One consequence was that the party spent money late on billboard advertising, while Labour spent it early on staff and polling. A huge part of Labour's apparent superiority was that they had a great deal more staff.

Certainly, the Conservative Party needs to change, and under William Hague's leadership we have already begun to do so.

The author is Director of the Conservative Party Research Department. This extract is from `Political Communications', due to be published by Frank Cass on Thursday