Monday, 18 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: the Conservatives

Finally there are the Conservatives. What happened last week was unprecedented (yes, that word again), and it will be hard to repeat it in 2020, especially in the face of further unpopular austerity. But the are lucky in their enemies: Labour and the Lib Dems are in chaos, both in terms of leadership and strategic direction. UKIP are a threat, but they are currently riven by infighting and may not be able to keep facing both left and right for much longer.

A key issue for the Conservatives is that Cameron has admitted that he will not contest a third general election. This means that some time in the next five years there will be a new Conservative leader. I'm guessing that this changeover will occur after the 2017 EU referendum, whether he wins or loses. Therefore their success in the 2020 general election will depend on who is appointed as Cameron's successor. Boris Johnson is the media's favourite, and someone like Michael Gove is also likely to throw his hat into the ring. However my favourite is currently Rory Stewart, the MP for Penrith and the Border since 2010. He has a true boy's own backstory, including helping to run two Iraqi provinces. Even better, he is young and his constituency is in the north, a factor I will address below.

The party's positioning will be vital. Some of the elements that led them to be labelled 'the nasty party' have moved over to UKIP. Despite this, the Conservative vote share remained more or less static: those voters who moved to UKIP were offset by new Conservative voters from the Lib Dems and elsewhere. As such, Cameron's centrist approach has been vindicated. If the new Labour leader lurches to the left, as is entirely possible, then  the political centre ground may be left to the Conservatives. If Labour tries to be centrist, they will find the Conservatives already there.

There can be little doubt that the thin Conservative majority will decrease over this term through natural wastage: by-elections are always difficult for sitting governments to win. For this reason the Conservatives need to take an aggressive approach to 2020 and try to take more marginal seats. Experts were expecting them to take a defensive approach this year but they did the opposite, and actually attacked Labour marginals, of which they won enough to more than compensate for those they lost to Labour.

A key factor for the Conservatives will be the boundary changes they tried to pass in the last parliament, and which were somewhat controversially blocked by the Liberal Democrats. The changes were of two types: the equalisation of seat sizes in terms of populations, and the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Combined, these moves would reduce Labour's built-in electoral advantage which means the Conservatives need to get a significantly greater vote to win the same number of seats as Labour. This is true if they keep the seat equalisation measures and remove the more controversial reduction in the number of seats. Expect this measure to be back in parliament this term.

If you look at the electoral map, it is clear the Conservatives powerbase is in the south and rural areas. Where they lack seats is in London, the urban north, and Scotland. London will prove a hard nut for them to crack, especially in the face of demographic changes and the mayoral elections which are almost certain to go to Labour. Scotland would also be difficult, but it would be sensible for them to target the seven second-places they achieved in Scotland this time. They might even gain one or two.

The real opportunity for the Conservatives lie in the urban north. It is telling that the third tweet George Osborne sent out after the election victory was about the 'northern powerhouse'. There can be little doubt that successive governments have treated the urban north poorly; the powerhouse of London has attracted more than its fair share of both government attention and finance.

There are many northern constituencies that might turn blue if the Conservatives gave them a little love; there can be little doubt that such attention would also be to the advantage of the country's finances as well: north versus south does not have to be a zero-sum gain. It would be easy to give the northern towns (and the north in general) some love whilst not spurning the south. The key to a third Conservative term in power may just lie in Osborne's 'northern powerhouse'. And he knows it.

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