Dennis Kavanagh: The party's right wing is wrong: leader did well not to listen

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The Conservatives' 2010 election campaign gained a bad press, not least from party members. As they mingle at the Birmingham conference, activists, particularly on the right, mutter that the party could have won outright had Cameron listened to them.

In our new book The British General Election of 2010, Philip Cowley and I argue that the prescriptions of the right are mistaken. Many have complained that Cameron's modernising strategy neglected tax cuts and immigration curbs. But, given the large lead the party already enjoyed on these issues, what further benefit would it have gained? It may merely have weakened the party's standing among the liberal-minded people Cameron had been trying to court.

The party's private post-election polls found that voters who considered voting Tory but in the end did not do so most often mentioned worries that it still stood for the rich, and would remove tax credits or free bus passes for the elderly, recalling the phrase "the same old Tories". Cameron needed to go further to convince voters the party had changed.

Conservative strategists need to look elsewhere. The party made few inroads in seats with a relatively large ethnic minority vote or a large public-sector workforce or many on welfare benefits – what some Cameroons called "Labour's client state". And Scotland is still a no-go country for Conservatives.

Cameron's aides disagree that a shift to the right would have achieved greater success with these groups. And such a campaign would not have helped his efforts to court Liberal Democrats after polling day, nor would it have helped Clegg to persuade his party to form a coalition. That they were able to form a coalition was a mark of Cameron's progress in changing his party, at elite level at least, even if it did not deliver a majority of seats.

The party had hoped for more success from its heavy investment in the battleground seats. But the gains made an important difference. With a uniform national swing, the Conservatives would have fallen to 291 seats, Labour increased to 264 and the Lib Dems would have had 64. Labour would also have been able to form a majority coalition with the Lib Dems.

Other modernising initiatives, notably the selection of more female and ethnic minority candidates via the A-list, had mixed results. Women candidates performed no better than men. Where an ethnic minority Tory fought a seat contested by a white predecessor in 2005, the party vote increased by less than where a white candidate fought both elections. Selecting ethnic minority candidates had symbolic importance for the party leadership but may have cost it votes.

The 2010 result needs to be seen in the broader context of political change. The decline of the two-party system, the growth of "other" parties (winning nearly 100 seats in the past two elections) and a decline in the number of marginal seats make hung parliaments increasingly likely. The process of "coalitionising" British politics – to quote Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary – is one to which we may need to become accustomed.

A paradox of the election is that Cameron was forced to redraw the political landscape out of political weakness. In contrast, Tony Blair was unable to redraw it in 1997 – a Lab/Lib Dem coalition and possible electoral reform – because he was too strong.

Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley's The British General Election of 2010 is published by Palgrave Macmillan

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