The deep pessimism in the Conservative Party takes some getting used to. Not so long ago Conservatives won elections with their eyes closed. They knew how to win and how electorally formidable they were. In marked contrast, when I spoke to some of those who attended the much-reported ConservativeHome conference at the weekend, I was struck above all by their pessimism. They assumed the next election was lost.
Between sessions, some asked me for my prediction, too. I suggested that, like the 1970s, we were probably in hung parliament territory, with Labour the biggest party. During each conversation, I assumed I would be admonished for predicting a small Labour win rather than a Conservative victory. Each time, the various Conservative activists responded by saying something along these lines: “A hung parliament? No way. Labour will win a big majority.” One put it to me more emphatically: “Labour are in for 10 years.” Admittedly, they were speaking after Lord Ashcroft had given an authoritative presentation on his latest polling of marginal seats, which pointed to a substantial Labour victory. Still, I did not speak to a single person at the conference who thought the Conservatives would win an overall majority, although from the platform some ministers tried to be more upbeat.
This is the context in which Theresa May and others are suddenly seen as future leaders. In the darkness, a party clings to a hope that someone might find a route away from what they fear might be another long period of opposition. They chose two leaders, David Cameron and George Osborne, who were too young, inexperienced and ideologically outdated to rise to the current, epic challenges of leadership, and they now wonder what to do next. May delivered a solid, wide-ranging address at the conference. It was reported as if it were a route map to the Promised Land, largely because she is not Cameron or Osborne. She would be another throw of the dice, although no one I spoke to at the conference thought it likely that any dice would be thrown before the election.
This febrile mood, in a Conservative Party finally conducting an internal debate on the future of a centre right party, is a gift to Labour, not least because the pessimism is not irrational. The Conservative Party faces the nightmare of strong Ukip showing at the election with the Liberal Democrats performing well in target seats in the South.
Yet parts of the Labour Party are still quite pessimistic, too. This is partly because they, too, cannot quite get used to the idea of the Conservatives ceasing to be the natural party of government.
As Owen Jones argued in yesterday’s Independent, much of the debate in England – less so in Scotland and Wales – is still rooted on the right. More specifically, some of those brought up on the cautious defensiveness of Tony Blair are not at all convinced that Labour can win next time with a leader who openly admits to being left of the centre. The doubts extend beyond such backward-looking pessimism. After Labour came fourth in the Eastleigh by-election, a former minister, loyal to Ed Miliband, told me not to underestimate the degree of nervy introspection the outcome would trigger.
Right on cue, shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy made some vaguely downbeat comments in the New Statesman about “lazy Labour... those who have a sense of entitlement to win”. I detect nowhere such a sense of entitlement and much more a fear that victory is by no means inevitable. Murphy is thought to have been one of those who argued that the leadership should apologise more profusely about its past economic record, not least in relation to public spending. I still hear the argument advanced by some Labour MPs, worried that their past in government could lose them the next election as well as the last.
In my view, they are wholly wrong in their strategic calculation. The slogan “Sorry we blew it last time. Vote Labour” does not sound like a winner to me, but at least no one can accuse them of taking victory for granted.
When I have conversations with some Labour MPs about the next election, they are almost precisely the reverse of those I held at the ConservativeHome conference. I suggest that Labour will be the biggest party in a hung parliament and some respond along these lines: “What if the economy improves? What will happen when we announce our spending cuts? Voters still don’t trust us to do any better.”
Of course, most Labour MPs are daring to be more optimistic now. They read Lord Ashcroft’s polls, too. Ed Miliband has consistently believed that the causes of the global economic crisis were bound to challenge the right, just as the collapse of corporatism almost destroyed Labour in the 1970s. But I sense still a wariness in Labour’s ranks and, from some, a much deeper pessimism about its chances of winning outright next time.
In contrast, at their spring conference the Liberal Democrats exuded a fresh exuberance after the Eastleigh by-election. Their winning candidate was paraded as if he were the World Cup. The party certain to come third and doomed to lose seats at the next election is feeling almost buoyant, thrilled to still be breathing. Meanwhile, the two potential winners agonise about how precisely to secure victory in deeply troubled times.