If the Conservatives want to win a majority, they must smash their idols
For the Tories, Margaret Thatcher remains beyond reproach. It’s this that will stop them from winning.
Perhaps the most surreal moment in Britain's Margaret Thatcher tribute jamboree came when Peter Lilley slammed the BBC for having the gumption to suggest his former employer had been a teensy bit on the divisive side. The fact that her policies continue largely unabated means "she leaves a legacy that unites us all," he argued; the broadcaster's choice of adjective "probably tells us more about the BBC than it does about her". It wasn't enough for the BBC to broadcast wall-to-wall eulogies to the most controversial political leader of modern times: now it was supposed to pretend she had never been controversial in the first place.
This moment stays with me – partly because it's so self-evidently ludicrous, but also because it seems to symbolise the Tories' huge, unspoken electoral problem. The party is in denial about quite how toxic the Thatcher legacy remains in certain parts of the country. Its supporters were, not unreasonably, outraged that anyone could throw a street party to celebrate the death of an 87-year-old woman; but they never stopped to ask how widespread such feelings were, or what impact they might have on the party’s prospects.
This refusal to take an honest look at the Thatcher legacy is, I think, a key reason why the Conservatives didn’t get the landslide they wanted in 2010. The Clause 4 moment that everyone was waiting for, the thing that would show that the party had really changed, was a proper assessment of its last government’s record: one that admitted that parts of the country had been lain waste, and showed that the new leadership had learnt from its predecessor’s mistakes. But David Cameron never did that. Until someone does, it’s hard to see how the party could ever win a majority.
There’s a risk all this sounds like lefty wish-fulfilment, of course, so let’s look at some evidence. Consider the constituencies on the Tories target list that they failed to win in 2010, and see if you can spot any patterns. These seats are scattered all over the place, and will be affected by a variety of local factors. Almost all of them, though, fall into at least one of the following three categories.
1) Suburban seats in the big secondary cities, that historically swung between Labour and Tory but stubbornly failed to do so this time (e.g. Birmingham Northfield, Bolton North East, Tynemouth);
2) Scottish seats (e.g. Stirling, Angus, Dumfries);
3) Ostensibly true blue areas that went Lib Dem at some point in the nineties, and have never gone back (e.g. Cheltenham, Somerton, Taunton Deane).
When it comes to those first two groups, you don’t have to think very hard to come up with reasons they’re less likely to go Tory than they once were. (We’ll come back to the third lot.) However much the Tories yell about more miners losing their jobs under Wilson than Thatcher, it’s still her government that gets the blame for the demise of British industry: obviously a bigger factor when you get north of Milton Keynes. In Scotland, anger about de-industrialisation is compounded by other issues, not least that it had a whole extra year of the poll tax.
The result is that there are dozens of once marginal constituencies that now look out of reach. Tynemouth had a Tory MP for nearly 50 years until 1997; in 2010, Labour retained it by nearly 11 points. Birmingham Edgbaston had never had a Labour MP until 1997, but in 2010 Gisela Stuart retained it without breaking a sweat.
Most extreme of all is the collapse of the party’s fortunes north of the border. In October 1974, an election the party lost, the Tories won 16 seats in Scotland. Two of them were in Glasgow. Today, the party has one Scottish seat. Somehow, we’ve all come to accept this as normal; even now the Tories are planning an electoral strategy based on recapturing LibDem seats in the south.
Cameron's detoxification efforts did nothing to address any of this. Where was the attempt at reconciliation with Scotland, or to reassure the north he didn’t idolise a period in which entire towns were dumped on the scrapheap? He didn’t have to apologise, exactly; but he could at least have shown that he understood his predecessor’s record remained a concern. Not a bit of it, though.
That's the long explanation for why the Thatcher legacy is still harming the Tories’ electoral chances. This is the short one: 42%. That’s the proportion of voters a 2011 survey found would never vote Tory. Won’t even think about it. As Tim Montgomerie said at the time, that leaves the party in the unenviable position of needing to win three-quarters of every available voter to get a majority.
It’s this that explains the loss of once blue seats to the yellows. The fact that places like Cheltenham or Somerton don't have Tory MPs is at first glance faintly bizarre. But one of the more noticeable electoral trends of the past 20 years has been the rise of the anyone-but-the-Tories bloc: once this group has seen that it can keep the Tories out by voting LibDem, even in places like Cheltenham, it’s likely to keep doing so. Whether this tactical voting will survive the coalition remains to be seen, but the Eastleigh by-election result suggests that it could. Does anyone really think that that the divisive nature of the Thatcher government had nothing to do with this?
The Conservative party’s only chance of winning the sort of majorities it used to get is to persuade some of that 42% to give it another chance. Doing that, though, would mean addressing their concerns; that, in turn, means admitting to the downside of the Thatcher legacy.
But David Cameron hasn’t done that: his government remains wedded to the vast majority of the Thatcherite platform. And, as we've learnt from the last month, his predecessor’s legacy is sacrosanct. Cameron could never issue a mea culpa about deindustrialisation, or mass unemployment, or the treatment of the Scots: that would mean dishonouring the memory of his party’s heroine, criticising a period that much of its membership still regards as the golden age. Vast swathes of the party, indeed, want to rerun the eighties all over again, finding another union to crush or another industry to privatise. For all I know that'll stop a few waverers from defecting to UKIP in safe seats in Sussex, but I don't imagine it'll play all that well in Birmingham Northfield.
To any Tories reading: this isn't about renouncing the Iron Lady and all her works. You aren’t going to do that, and no New Statesman> writer is ever going to persuade you otherwise. It's about persuading you to deal with the world as it is, not as you'd like it to be. It’s not enough to be outraged that there are still people who hate Margaret Thatcher. It’s not enough to think you’re right. There are voters out there who might once have voted Tory, and yet will not now. If you want to return to majority government, you need to ask yourselves why.
In the eighties, at the height of the Thatcherite ascendancy, the joke was that the Labour left had a motto: "No compromise with the electorate". Thirty years on, the Tories risk making that same mistake: refusal to compromise won elections for them once and so, they assume, it will do so again. It won’t. That is Margaret Thatcher's legacy, too.