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Why has the recovery of the UK Conservative Party been so prolonged?

The purpose of this essay is to examine the causes and potential remedies for the failure of the UK Conservative Party to hold Electoral office for the past decade. In order to do this an analysis of the effect of Tony Blair's re-positioning of the Labour Party must be looked at. Secondly, the unpopularity of Conservative economic policy will be considered. Next it will be argued that contrary to popular parlance the Conservatives were not rejected because they were too right wing, but simply because their 'branad' became so tainted. Then the role of the recent Conservative governments in tainting the party's image must be examined. Finally, the potential for recovery and the current 're-branding' being taken on by new Conservative leader David Cameron will be discussed.

During the second half of the last Conservative Government Tony Blair and the rest of the authors of the New Labour 'project' changed the political alignment of the Labour Party and in doing so affected the public perception of both themselves and the viable strategies open to the Conservative Party. In the Parliament preceding the 1992 General Election the Conservative Party had been able to launch consistent attacks on the Labour Party for their left wing re-distributionist credentials. The Prime Minister said to Leader of the Opposition Neil Kinnock in one exchange, 'The Labour party, by contrast, is in favour of much higher spending, which can be met only by much higher taxation, not just for the well-off, but for those on the standard rate of income tax.' Conservative MP Sir Fergus Montgomery attacked the socialist ideology still associated with the Labour Party, 'The cost of socialism was too much for many of them to endure… Liverpool is a socialist showpiece-rubbish piled up in the streets and boarded up windows. The honest decent Liverpudlian must despair that a once proud city has been reduced to this. It is a vivid illustration of socialism in action.' Following the 1992 General Election a team at the top of the Labour Party carried out a review of the Party's image. This review, led by Phillip Gould, found that despite the modernisation drive by former leader Neil Kinnock the party was still seen as being too wedded to the traditional left-wing totems of high taxes, trade unions and most importantly of being against the aspirations of individuals to better their social position. In order to correct this, Tony Blair sought to change the perception of the party by totally repositioning it on the political axis. His major achievement in doing this was the rewriting of Clause IV in the Labour Party constitution in order to remove the commitment to nationalisation of the heights of industry. This seemed to have an effect, not only on Labour, but on the potential electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party. A contemporary survey suggested that of the population questioned 33 per cent of people saw themselves as naturally Conservative, 20 per cent as libertarian and 18 per cent as socialist. Unfortunately for the Conservatives electoral chances post-1997, after the re-positioning of the Labour Party the second two groups broadly supported the party, whilst a significant majority of the Conservative group moved to support New Labour. The importance of the re-alignment in British politics on the Conservative Party's fortunes is shown when examining a poll carried out at the time of the 2001 General Election. In 1964 Harold Wilson had achieved broadly the same electoral success as Blair in 1997, yet proved unable to hold a Labour majority for more than a few years at a time. In 1964 the Labour government was elected with 64 per cent of the working class vote and only 19 per cent of the middle class 'salariat' vote. Yet in 1997 the Labour Party significantly stole the traditional Tory voters. There support was 19 per cent up with the 'salariat' class, 18 per cent up with those described as non-manual workers and 24 percentage points up with the self employed. A comparison of polls in 1987 and 1997 is even more illuminating as to why the new inclusive Labour Party damaged Conservative electability. In 1987 59 per cent of people when polled believed that the Labour Party could be trusted to look after the interests of the Middle Classes. However, by 1997 85 per cent of people responded positively to the same question. Added to this is the fact that 93 per cent of working class voters still believed that Labour spoke for them. These statistics serve to highlight the extent to which New Labour had become the 'One Nation' party that the Conservatives had recently relied upon to win elections.

An impression formed among a section of the public that the years of Conservative Government between 1979 and 1997 were firstly cruel, followed by economic incompetence, and finally deception. These in turn can be highlighted as contributing to an aversion to the Conservative Party that has been constant for the previous ten years or more. When the BBC website launched a retrospective of Mrs. Thatcher in 2004 comments were equally split between those who loved her and those who thought she was a wicked person. One contributor said, 'Mrs. Thatcher created a very selective division in society. She wanted prosperity but only for the chosen few, the rest could have unemployment and social decay. Her vision on a Britain became a nightmare for people in Scotland, the North and Wales.' Another member of the public said, 'I'd love to comment, but my views on that woman would be unprintable I'm afraid.' Given the polls above that showed a constant Tory support rating in the thirties it can be fairly assumed that a large minority of the population loyal to the Conservatives admired her, but that her reputation was as we have seen above with most of the rest of the population. Thatcher herself did little to dispel these opinions. In her memoirs she lambasts those Conservative minded Britons who failed to support her policies wholeheartedly, 'If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he had better become a socialist and have done with it. Indeed one of the reasons for our electoral failure is that people believe too many Conservatives have become socialists already.' The unpopularity of the Conservatives is at its height in the North of England, Scotland and Wales the areas believed to be most affected by her policies. This is corroborated by another opinion poll that shows that support for the Conservative party in Northern England is still consistently 10 points below the party's average across the country. Equally Thatcher's rabid anti-Europenism created a lot of the problems that John Major had to deal with subsequently. One Conservative describes her outlook thusly, 'The logical conclusion of this position, of course, went way beyond skepticism. It was that Britain had no place in the EU.' Yet despite this after 11 years of Thatcher Government and a Party being split over the issue 62 per cent of the polled public still favoured continued membership. The subsequent John Major administration also did a lot to erode the opinion of the Conservative Party. Black Wednesday, large interest rate rises and home repossessions seemed to have irreversibly affected the Tories ratings on handling the economy in the relevant period. Whilst the economy actually grew in the latter part of the Major government, when polled in 1997 48 per cent of people still believed it was performing badly. This shows a first example of the true nature of an issue being blurred by the Conservative name being attached to it. Equally the promise prior to the 1992 election to cut taxes that was subsequently broken did great damage to Tory credibility. A sympathetic analyst admitted in 2005 that this period led to a poor opinion of the Conservatives in general, 'Many of the negatives associated with the Conservative Party date from this period: that they are unprincipled, that they do not care about ordinary people, that they are interested in power for its own sake, that they will say anything to get elected.'
David Cameron is attempting to remedy the problem with the Conservative Party image. Like Tony Blair did with the Labour Party, Cameron sought to close the political gap between the parties by expressing admiration for his opposite number, 'Tony Blair understood this-profoundly understood it. And people could see he understood it. So they could see that New Labour really was new. But there was something else Tony Blair understood. He understood that some people had been left behind.' By saying things such as these Cameron subtly apologised for the bits people hadn't liked about the Tories in the recent past. He went on in his speech to tackle the area of policy where the Conservatives were losing to Labour, 'Social Justice and Economic efficiency are the common ground of British politics.' Currently this tactic seems to be working. Recent polling put voting intentions at 38 per cent for the Conservative Party, to 30 per cent to Labour.  Furthermore, in 2002 when people were asked if the Conservative Party would win the next election 19 per cent said yes, the figure now stands at 37 per cent. The Green policies of the new Conservative leadership also seem to be working, showing 19 per cent of people coming from the Liberal Democrats or Green Party to the Tories. All this suggests that the current strategy is the correct way to reverse the Tory decline.

The repositioning of the Labour Party by Tony Blair did the Conservatives great damage, because he was able to allay a lot of the fears about his party, promise to keep the parts of the Conservative governments that people liked and therefore convert many Conservative supporters. During the first two Parliaments in opposition the Conservative Party did itself damage by sticking to a tax cutting agenda, contrary to the popular appetite in the country for public expenditure. However, the notion that the Tories were unpopular because of right wing policies on subjects like immigration is incorrect. Polling shows that the public hold many of these Conservative views, yet refuse to endorse them when they are linked to the Conservative name. The Thatcher and Major years whilst bringing electoral success are to blame for the plummet in public opinion and party image. However, the new leadership of the Party seems to be leading a recovery along similar lines as the New Labour project which so far has been successful. In the final analysis, the recovery of the Conservative Party has taken so long because its reputation and 'brand' was greatly discredited in the eyes of all but their core support, and only recently have they taken the steps necessary to combat this.

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