Setting out the mountain to climb
If the Conservative Party could have designed an opponent it would probably have come up with something that looks an awful lot like the Labour Party led by Ed Miliband.
Whenever they hold focus groups on their opponents, Tory strategists return with broad smiles across their faces. Two years after the trade unions chose him as the successor to Gordon Brown, there has been no statistically significant increase in the small percentage of voters who think Mr Miliband has prime ministerial qualities. Just 3% think he is charismatic. 4% say that he’s a natural leader. 5% agree that he’s strong. It will take a political earthquake to substantially alter these numbers and last week’s ‘one nation Labour’ speech by Mr Miliband, while impressive, was not a game-changer.
And it’s not just Mr Miliband who encourages the Conservatives. The Conservatives pinch themselves whenever they think of the yesteryear quality of the Shadow Cabinet and of Labour’s failure to detoxify its economic reputation. After it lost the last election — winning, it should not be forgotten, an even smaller percentage of the vote than was gleaned by the Tories in their landslide defeat of 1997 — it was imperative that Labour broke free from its association with debt, waste and taxes. Nothing better illustrates its failure to achieve this than the fact that Ed Balls — Gordon Brown’s leading economic adviser throughout the boom-to-bust years — is back in charge of Labour’s economic brief.
The Tories would be very foolish however to rely on Labour weakness to win the next election. It would be a bet rather than a strategy. The Tories have struggled to win a third of the national vote at four successive general elections. There is something fundamentally wrong with the Tory brand. For all of the reasons set out below the next election is going to be difficult for the party to win. Small steps are not an option. Bold changes are required if the party is to win a majority.