David Cameron, the leader of the British Conservative Party, sits on top of a fourteen point lead in the latest opinion polls, suggesting a landslide victory with a majority of eighty or more in the next general election in Britain. Most commentators expect the election next May – it must be over before the first week of June under British electoral law – as Gordon Brown keeps hoping for either a significant economic turn-around or David Cameron to make a damaging campaign blunder. Gordon Brown is not helped by the news that the sight in his one remaining eye (he lost the sight in one eye as a teenager) is damaged.
Cameron had a reasonable party conference. He said enough to demonstrate that he could communicate effectively and that the new compassionate conservatism was focused, forthright and fiscally responsible, but not enough to worry the centrist voters. He left policy details for the election itself and focused on the major themes his party will pursue: getting Britain back to work, reducing the size and cost of government, getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and tackling poverty. He balanced a government committed to austerity with one committed to compassion.
Most significantly, he offered a powerful and effective critique of the achievements of the Labour Government. He points out that since Labour came to power in 1997, the poor have become poorer, more young people are now long term unemployed than at anytime in recent history, inequality is rising faster under Brown than it did under Thatcher, crime rates in poverty stricken areas of Britain are rising, more schools fail to meet standards now than did a decade ago, more patients die in hospitals of medically mistakes and infections than at any time in the last fifty years, national debt (forecast to be £175 billion for 2010) is the highest since IMF intervention in the last Labour administration of Jim Callaghan. In fact, deficits and debt will define the social and economic policies of the next decade of British politics, with debt servicing in a single year costing more than is spent supporting schools.
This powerful critique is intended to point out the difference between the rhetoric of the Labour Party – a party for the people – and the reality of its achievements and to point to the history of the compassionate conservative party as the model for what is to come. It is an intellectually convincing argument, but people’s memories are fuzzy. Their images of conservatives don’t match this rhetoric – Cameron has a massive task ahead getting this message across in a way that is not patronizing or open to attack.
But fundamentally, the “new” Labour project of Blair, Brown and Mandelson has failed and done so spectacularly. Britain’s finances are in a shambles and it is selling off assets and printing money (now referred to as “fiscal easing”) so as to delay the inevitable increases in taxes and substantial cuts in public spending, which all major parties are committed to.
Brown will not go before the election and will fight to the end, but many in the Labour party are now resigned to the fact that they will lose the next election. Some three hundred and twenty five members of parliament will not return to the commons after the election – some 170 labour members are expected to retire, be forced to resign or lose their seats. As Labour begins to contemplate a decade or more in opposition, it will have some new blood to help it consider its future and will need a new leader.
Leadership candidates are already positioning themselves, while overtly supporting Gordon Brown. Ed Balls, currently Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, is a leading candidate as also is David Milliband, Foreign Secretary. Balls is a close ally of Brown, but is noticeably beginning to distance himself from Brown’s public policy positions. Milliband looked like a coup member earlier in the year, but backed off against significant threats to his political future by a rabid group of Brown acolytes who, it is said, make the mafia appear amateur when issuing threats. There is a growing view that, in order to have a chance of rebuilding, they need to skip the current generation and look to the next intake in the commons for a new leader. They will have time. No one will be looking to Labour for ideas and innovation for some time.