The media circus was fixated by the travails and reliefs of the Labour Party. The continuing collapse in Scotland, the mediocre results in English councils, the recapture of the capital: do these results cement Jeremy Corbyn’s position? Or do they demonstrate his unsuitability as chief opposition spokesman and putative prime minister, and presage a leadership challenge?
The Corbynistas, unsurprisingly, hailed the ‘stonking’ results – indeed, they could have been even better were it not for that pesky Blairite sniping. For their part, the ‘far-right’ moderates within the Labour Party did their utmost to give the credit for Labour’s successes to the individual candidates, and to place the blame for any reversals firmly at the leader’s door. The commentariat was divided, but what of the Conservatives? They are, after all, the party of government; the party which, according to the narrative of Corbyn-the-unelectable, will dominate the political scene for years to come. Behind the headlines, important lessons for Conservatives can be taken away from the elections of May 5th.
The juxtaposition – in style, substance and outcome – of the respective Tory campaigns in Scotland and London speaks volumes about two distinct pathways for the future Conservatism; not necessarily or exclusively the ideological, though it is inseparable to a degree, but the strategic. If the party wishes to be a genuinely one-nation party – and reclaim its fabled self-label as the ‘natural party of government’ – it must embrace the former.
The overt negativity of Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign has been widely commented on. To brand it as Islamophobic would be unfair and excessive, but it was personal and rather imprudent. Sadiq Khan’s campaign was hardly perfect, yet it did at least attempt to eschew much of the ad hominem onslaught. In a city which traditionally is a Labour stronghold, Mr Khan’s victory should not be a shock – the two-time successes of Boris Johnson attest to his unique celebrity premium, which exhibited its worth as an opinion poll suggested he would win if he were standing again – but lessons can and must nonetheless be drawn from the evident failure of a Conservative campaign which was undeniably stained with the ink of Lynton Crosby and George Osborne.
In Scotland, meanwhile, the indefatigable and endlessly amiable Ruth Davidson stormed to national significance as the Scottish Tories took second place in the Scottish Parliament. The displacement of Labour as a meaningful political force north of the border is a question of great controversy, and not one which shall be addressed here. Yet Ms Davidson’s uncompromising unionism, interminable positivity, and rigorous inquisition of the policies of the SNP surely played a part. Her resolve (and that of the leagues of persevering Tories in Scotland) to fight and win in a country where for decades the party has been, interchangeably, an irrelevance, the butt of many panda jokes, and a hated vestige of Thatcherism lies in stark contrast to the bottom-line minimalism of Conservative HQ and the cynical leadership I call Cambornism.
Ms Davidson embodies the sort of Tory who can make the party one which attracts votes for its merits, not simply for its opponents’ faults (she is by no means the only one, but perhaps one of the most prominent). Her humble roots and genuine persona are testament to her ‘normalness’. I loathe attacks on David Cameron and George Osborne (and others of similar endowment) based on their privileged upbringings: they’re wealthy and posh, get over it. The problem is their cynicism, and belief that having a ‘long-term economic plan’ passes for a durable electoral strategy. They should be congratulated for much of the good work they have done, and of course for their election victory in 2015, but let’s not pretend that the fact that Labour chose the wrong Miliband in 2010 didn’t hand the Tories a much better chance of winning against the odds.
Since that victory, Mr Cameron has at times been at pains to stress his one-nation credentials; his passion for social justice and opportunity for all. This is admirable, but the headline-grabbers are still policies which seem to be doing the converse. The result is that, regardless of the intention, the leadership of the party is characterised as uncaring, or malevolent at worst. As Fraser Nelson of the Telegraph commented while analysing the success of Donald Trump, ‘a party that has no message for voters at the bottom is a party ripe for destruction’. It could be added that such a message must stress the importance of those at the bottom for the economic and democratic success of a country. Far too often the message to such voters – who tend overwhelmingly to vote Labour – from the Conservatives is either drowned out, or uttered so phlegmatically that it is as good as silence. Iain Duncan Smith hit the nail on the head when he accused the leadership of prioritising those who reliably vote Tory (pensioners, homeowners, wealthy people) over those who don’t (the young, benefit claimants, public sector workers). The same argumentation can be made in terms of geography. It pains me as a northerner that it so often feels like my beloved home is a no-go zone for Tories. There is no predetermined, inevitable reason why compassionate conservative ideas cannot be successful in places like northeast England. It is in this way that the Scottish Tories’ remarkable and deserved fight back should show that the party has to take a message to all parts of the UK.
Ms Davidson is a close friend of Stephen Crabb, the working class, evangelical work and pensions secretary, and there are many more Tories of a similar vein. Tories who seem to be human. Tories who you could enjoy a pint with. Tories who understand that welfare spending is more than just a number to be cut. I do not profess that I – nor indeed politicians like Ms Davidson and Mr Crabb – have all the answers to the party’s or the nation’s challenges, and Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are not the devil’s own children, as the Left would have us believe. But the party is at a critical juncture: the opportunity presented by a divided Labour Party beholden to Trots and Stalinists will not last forever. It is conceivable that Labour will find a more electable leader than Mr Corbyn (hardly a difficult task) and implant him or her before 2020 (rather more difficult), and the Conservatives cannot be caught napping in the face of a fragile global economy. Negative campaigning has its time and place, but it is not a panacea for all political weather. There is nothing airy-fairy about delivering a positive narrative: indeed, many of today’s public policy challenges will require imaginative thinking to overcome them. And if nothing else, positivity makes us all feel better. Perhaps we Tories might stop getting spat at.