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Sunday, May 06, 2012

If the Conservatives’ UKIP problem looks bad now, wait until 2014

Open Europe's Christopher Howarth has the following article published on Conservativehome:

UKIP have done well in the local elections, securing almost 13% of the vote, in the places where they stood, and caused real problems for the Conservative Party. It might be tempting for the Conservative leadership to retreat into Downing Street, curl up in their well-beingness zone and ignore this local squall, or still worse, insult those former Conservatives who decided to vote UKIP. This would be a serious mistake as events are conspiring to create a perfect UKIP storm going into the 2014 Euro elections just before the (now fixed) 2015 general election.

Firstly, before I explain further, I do not believe that the Coalition’s actions on Europe are the whole, or even a major explanation of UKIP’s good showing. Not all UKIP voters are former Conservatives and even if they were, not all would return – when is a protest no longer a protest? Europe is not the only issue that motivates people to vote UKIP. Perceptions that the Conservative Party does not share voter’s concerns on immigration, law and order, has a Maoist fascination for unwanted and damaging constitutional change (such as House of Lords reform), as well as an air (hopefully temporary) of incompetence all play their part. However Europe remains an issue and cannot be ignored. This is why:
There will be a European election in 2014. Last time (in 2009) UKIP came second with 16.5% of the vote, in 2014 they could do a lot better providing momentum going into the general election. In 2009 the Conservatives had a coherent European narrative (based on a Lisbon referendum) and although they chose to focus on domestic issues it was in line with majoritarian British thinking. In 2014 the Conservatives are unlikely to have a clear narrative.

In 2014 we will still be seeing the after effects of the euro-crisis (or worse) which may be perceived to have caused further direct costs to the UK taxpayer in the form of further IMF contributions.

In 2014 the UK will have to decide whether to opt in to EU jurisdiction over 130 EU police and Justice measures, including the EU arrest warrant, or leave them completely with the Liberal Democrats potentially fighting hard to stay in.

In 2014 we will see a major House of Commons Parliamentary vote on ratifying the EU’s seven year budgetary framework, which on past performance could see a rise or a freeze but not a cut. Voting it through would be unpopular when the UK is facing tax hikes as well as some cuts.

In 2014 the EU will implement a provision of the Lisbon Treaty changing the EU’s voting system meaning the UK could be out voted by the Eurozone acting as a caucus, with severe implications for the UK’s financial and social regulation. All manner of unpopular measures could appear in the meantime.

And all this with a General Election set in stone for 2015

So what can be done by the Conservatives to retake the initiative?

This is obviously difficult in a Coalition context but there are things that can be done. The Conservatives could set out distinctive policies, based around getting powers back from the EU that would in due course go into their manifesto. The Conservatives could set out a vision for the UK in a flexible Europe, post the eurozone crisis, based on the UK remaining outside the euro - President Klaus of the Czech Republic has recently set out something similar. The UK should say now that they will exercise their block opt-out over EU police and justice matters so it is not left hanging or reduced by 2014. The UK should also set out innovative ideas to shrink and radically reform the EU budget (Open Europe has suggested this on agricultural spending and this on EU structural funds). The UK could also consider unilaterally adopting a minimalist approach when implementing some of the worst aspects of EU regulation obviously aimed at Britain, such as the Agency Workers Directive and aspects of financial regulation.

Finally the Conservatives and the UK should show they understand the modern world by renewing its focus on economic liberalisation, securing the benefits of the single market while seeking out opportunities in high growth emerging markets – the two are not mutually exclusive. With these measures, the Conservatives could set out a narrative that would not please all, but would be in line with public opinion.



Rik said...

The problem with the UK system is that it is basically anti-change (at least structural/radical change). Of course it also makes usually less mistakes if it at last implements change.
Good or bad will depend on the situation.

Anyway at voter level in Europe there is clearly changing a lot that hasnot yet arrived yet at political level. Uncredibility of current politics, sytem not really fit for the web-age, globalised world with pro and cons (like mass immigration and international competition). In this respect (change at the voter level) the UK is not different from the rest of Europe. However at the political level it is running far behind.

Like a new Labour was required to bring the old trade union, real old fashioned socialist into the 21st century, probably the Conservatives need something similar.

Trends (at voter level) eg:
- anti-immigration (non Western at least);
- more nationalistic (people feel unsecure in the globablised world;
- more Europe moratorium;
- save the welfarestate.

Not all of these trends are wise. The save the welfare state looks simply unaffordable longer term for instance. But it is mainly how voters think all over Europe and a lot of politicians start to think.

The right is likely to fall apart in different groups. Combined that we see the historically seen somewhat strange combination of social conservatives combined with pro-welfarestatism (basically social economic conservativism, conservative as against change).

The Conservatives will have to adjust to that and find some common ground. Otherwise its historical combination of being social conservative and pro free trade will most likely loose support. The professional urban middle classes pro freetrade are often not social conservatives and the modern social and social economic conservatives are nationalistic and against free trade.

Rik said...

The Conservatives will at some point have to adjust to the new world. Otherwise the advantage of the present system might turn itself against them. Split the electorate of the Conservatives into 2 parts and under the present system you might end up with with 2 times the Libdem seats and that is not really much. As Holland, Finland, Austria and France that can happen in the time of a year. Plus likely one of those without any management capacity (no organisation and no proper people to become MPs or cabinet members (already a problem now).

This is the challenge for the Conservatives imho.
Which way to go?
Shorter term likely a move to the middle (like Merkel) might be positive. Especially on the issues like welfarestate. Combined with a new EU-strategy. Becoming more a Norway or a Switzerland than a Belgium or France.

As the welfarestate however in its present form looks simply unsustainable/unaffordable likely some adjustments will have to be made. This is not only even mainly a short term strategy.

A model could be the one the VVD in Holland is using. Implementing some populist policies (like on immigration) but with a better sounding rhetoric. Cut the fat in the social sector, but explain that this is in order to keep things affordable for the future. Come up with a strategy for Europe (another big issue), not walk into a burning house and like to have your own fire department. Try to get support for that also outside the EU (Turkey, Russia for instance).
You have to find a way not to loose voters at the centre while at the same time as well not create a mass exodus at the new populist right.

Anonymous said...

The Tories could make all of the assurrances laid out above.

The problem is, who is going to believe them any more.

The one thing that UKIP has going for it that the TOries (and the Libs and Labs) do not, is credibility: Nobody doubts for a moment that UKIP will actually make the reforms that it says it wants to make.

The Liblabdems are paying the price for their past mendacity -- and it's a price that they deserve to pay.

Anonymous said...

The People’s Pledge (www.peoplespledge.org) ran their first referendum on the UK's membership of the EU in the constituency of Thurrock last month. The turnout was an astonishing 90%, and 89% (13,000 voters) voted in favour of the UK holding a referendum on its membership of the EU. Whilst the existing Tory MP for Thurrock has a majority of just 92, the Tory high command has banned their MPs from signing the People’s Pledge. All the 13,000 voters who have signed the People’s Pledge are committing at the next General Election to vote for a parliamentary candidate who will support a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU; so if the MP for Thurrock continues to put her part loyalty (career?) before what is best for her Country then she will loose her seat at the next General Election. The People’s Pledge already has the signed support of 64 MPs and has really only just begun its work – the People’s Pledge is planning more referendums in other constituencies during 2012. The writing is on the wall and unless the Tories remove their head from the sand on this referendum issue support for the party will continue to erode. Whilst I am in theory a committed Tory; a vote on the UK’s membership of the EU will dictate how I vote at the next Election as I strongly believe that the Country needs to decide whether it wants to be “in” or “out” of the EU; the current status quo lacks a mandate from the people, and as a consequence our engagement with the EU lacks strategy and clarity. Isn’t it time our political leaders do what is best for the Country rather than their own careers; the Country could do with a leader who has conviction here, another Maggie Thatcher rather than another Heath.