From the Grass Roots
(This article is by a Member of the Conservative Party who is an observer of the political scene. It does not represent the views of COPOV nor of its members although they may be in agreement with some of the writer’s conclusions).
So we won after all! Despite the polls, the pundits and the media the electorate (at least in England and Wales) decided to place its trust in our policies. David Cameron and his team of ministers have now been handed the mandate which they were denied in May 2010. It is a great responsibility given to a party which has existed for over two hundred and fifty years born from the aristocracy, the landed gentry and the Church. It has produced many great Prime Ministers – Pitt, Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher – to name but four and even today can attract the votes of millions of people of all ages and from all walks of life, classes and creeds. Why is this? The writer suggests that it is rooted in history – the party was there before the people and mass universal suffrage and although it had certain aims, ideas and principles these have never been rigidly adhered to but have been moulded to suit the time and the occasion.
· A simple example will suffice. The writer comes from Wales and in 1998 the party was opposed to the Blair government’s proposals for devolution and a Welsh Assembly. The vote in Wales remained on a knife edge until the last constituency declared, voting ‘Yes’ and as a consequence the Assembly was set up by the narrowest of margins, 51% to 49%. At this point we had no Conservative Members of Parliament (Wales had become Conservative free as a result of the 1997 general election) but with proportional representation and our sole Assembly Member under first past the post (David Davies now M.P for Monmouth) we were able to make the Conservative voice heard, our members taking the view that now the Assembly had been established there was no going back and no possibility of returning to the status quo. Our Conservative members worked hard to re-establish the party as an effective force in Wales. Three of our current members Glyn Davies (Montgomery), Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) and David Davies (Monmouth) were Assembly Members. We are the main opposition in the Assembly (which is Labour controlled) but ten days ago returned eleven Members of Parliament, the highest number since the 1850’s (apart from1983 when we had fourteen) winning the Gower (albeit by only 27 votes) for the first time since 1906. We are supported by 25% of the electorate, the figures being higher in the rural and coastal parts of the country. Nationalism is not as potent a force in Wales as in Scotland being confined mainly to the rural Welsh speaking parts of Wales. Inroads have been made in the industrial former coal mining areas once dominated by the Labour Party and although there has been the odd success this is not reflected in the number of Members of Parliament, Labour holding on with substantial though falling votes and majorities.
The writer was surprised to find at a recent COPOV meeting how little was known about the Conservatives and Conservative successes in Wales. With such a small overall majority the eleven votes from Wales may well be vital in any close division.
However the writer does not think that David Cameron will have similar problems to those encountered by John Major twenty years ago (as his (Major’s) majority was slowly whittled away) for a number of reasons. Firstly John Major’s government was scuppered by Black Wednesday of September 1992 and the subsequent economic crisis and draconian measures needed to rectify the position; secondly, we had already been in power for fourteen or fifteen years and many ministers were exhausted and tired; thirdly in Tony Blair Labour had found an electable leader of Prime Ministerial material; and, fourthly Labour had, at that time, over 270 seats so the opposition was much less fragmented. With Sinn Fein not taking up their seats , the Unionists probably voting with the Conservatives on major issues, the Liberal Democrats decimated and Labour shorn of its forty Scottish Members, the writer thinks the majority for all practical purposes will be around 30 similar to that of Edward Heath after the 1970 general election.
Scotland, however, remains a major problem. Conservatives have always opposed proportional representation in the belief (probably mistaken) that with it we will never have a chance of being in government. Yet with just 50% of the total vote (not of the electorate) the SNP holds 95% of the Scottish seats in the House of Commons. A second referendum is being mooted presumably because they now believe they will get a ‘yes’ to cessation. The difficulty of course is that those wanting to retain the union are split between Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative voters. The Labour Party must take full responsibility for this state of affairs. For years they peddled the lie that Scotland was being short changed by a skinflint Tory Government at Westminster who had few Members of Parliament and cared little for Scotland (Margaret Thatcher, unfortunately, fanned the flames of this resentment by imposing the hated ‘poll tax’ on Scotland first) . All, they said, would be well once a Labour government was at Westminster and devolved powers to a new Scottish Parliament. And so it proved. The West Lothian question regarding Scottish Members being able to vote on matters relating to England but not on Scottish matters the preserve of the Scottish Parliament, has never been satisfactorily resolved. Labour thought that they could never lose in Scotland and we now have what can only be described as a ‘constitutional mess’ which could turn into a crisis with the SNP refusing to countenance any austerity measures.
We are constantly reminded that when we vote we are electing a parliament not a president. That, of course, is technically true. Our Queen is Head of State but governing the country is the responsibility of the Prime Minister and the ministers he appoints. In any poll as to who would make the better Prime Minister, David Cameron was the overwhelming choice. Ed Miliband suffered not only because of his left wing views but was hampered by the fact that he was not even the choice of his parliamentary colleagues and of the individual party members but of the trade unions who got their man elected by the narrowest of margins. In the age of television and relentless examination by the media how you come over as an individual counts for a lot. We may regret it but it is a fact. And the writer is certain that many people voted Conservative simply because they could not envisage Ed Miliband as prime minister , the more so because he refused to deny that the last Labour government had overspent.
When Nick Clegg led the Liberal Democrats into the coalition in May 2010, little did he think that five years later the Liberal Democrats would be reduced to a minibus of M.P’s. As Conservatives we should not gloat at their demise for we have to face the fact that in May 2010 the electorate was not prepared for whatever reason to put its trust in us alone. Coalition was the best answer because it provided stability at a very critical time and meant that there was a secure parliamentary majority for the economic measures which had to be taken. Liberal Democrats provided that stability at a critical time. Coalition does involve compromise and the writer thinks that under the circumstances it worked reasonably well. In any event the main ministries, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Defence Secretary, Justice etc. were always held by us. Vince Cable was always going to be a thorn but, in a way understandably so, as he was a Labour candidate in Glasgow in 1970 and a former member of the now defunct SDP joining the Liberals in the 1988 merger of the Liberals and Social Democrats.
The Labour Party continues to fight the battles of the past and it is ironic that its most successful Prime Minister was the public school educated Tony Blair who realised that Labour could not win by just appealing to its ever decreasing core vote but had to connect somehow with ‘middle’ England. Ed Miliband has taken the party back thirty years and it is now shorn of its Scottish heartlands which are going to be difficult to regain. Outside London it only has its Midland and Northern industrial base together with the parts of Wales I have already referred to. It is totally dependent on the trade unions who fund either directly or indirectly ninety five percent of its MPs. It is no good talking about privileged Tory toffs when not only your own former leader sits in the House of Lords but also his wife; when that same leader, left wing firebrand as he was in his youth, now has a massive pension from being a European Commissioner (an institution he once despised), a £700,000 house in a leafy part of South Glamorgan and a son given a safe seat simply because of his connections. Champagne socialism certainly but a resulting disillusion from people whose loyalty in the past could never be doubted but who now no longer bother to vote. But only a fool would write off the Labour Party and we can base that on our experience.
In 1945 our party suffered its heaviest defeat since 1906 and with the country turning left and electing the Attlee government it seemed likely that we might be out of power for fifteen maybe twenty years. Yet reform we did, paving the way for thirteen years of government under four different Prime Ministers. By 1966 Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, claimed, falsely as it turned out, that Labour was now ‘the natural party of government’ and even though Edward Heath lasted less than four years as Prime Minister, we were able to come back less than six years later and retain power first under Margaret Thatcher and then under John Major for a further eighteen years. The 1997 catastrophe when we won only 166 seats (the lowest since 1832?) although it led to thirteen years in the wilderness gave us time to regroup and to widen our base. 7th May 2015 saw that work completed with the most diverse parliamentary party ever with the greatest number of women and ethnic minority members ever and the promise by the Prime Minister to govern as ‘one nation’. Yet even at the height of this most unexpected victory there are warnings: in many constituencies there were small swings to the Labour Party; we have no representation in large areas of the north, nor in any of the northern cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds or Newcastle. Birmingham, once a bastion of Unionism has no Conservative M Ps other than Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield. Scotland is a completely lost cause. The minority parties, particularly UKIP and the Greens, complain at the unfairness of the voting system . Only 66% of the electorate voted (just 1% up on 2010) in what was supposed to be the closest election for decades. Europe and the forthcoming referendum will dominate the current parliament.
The writer sat out most of the general election. He did not watch an election broadcast, did no canvassing, no delivering of leaflets, no telling. It was only at 4 a m. on the Friday morning that he listened in on the radio and heard the words: ‘The Conservatives have now taken Cheltenham’. His reaction was ‘well this was not part of the script’ and he then switched on ITV to hear of the Conservative gains and how many seats we were likely to win -316 a minimum, possibly an overall majority in single figures. At 3 p.m. he watched the 70th Anniversary of the VE day commemorations at the Cenotaph he reflected thus :
Then, released from and relieved that we had defeated probably the most monstrous, vile sinister and vicious tyranny ever to set foot on this earth, we were so united that nothing else seemed to matter. Seventy years later we as a nation seem to be splitting apart with the northern most part of our island wanting apparently to govern itself independently despite our common language and common history. Another four million or so blame all things European on our present plight wishing us to withdraw from the European Union and to have strict control as to who comes to live in this country. Another one million or so put the environment at the top of the agenda. How can a Conservative government – or any government for that matter – reconcile these differences particularly when only 37% of the voters backed your party?
In May 1940 in his first broadcast as Prime Minister Winston Churchill said this: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ Will this be the epitaph of the 2015 – 2020 Parliament?