Saturday, June 26, 2004

Heading for rocky waters

I was particularly taken by an article in The Times today, which reported an analysis of the Euro-election results, and the performance of UKIP click here.

The crux of the report was that the party, which had more than doubled its share of the vote to 16 percent, had topped the poll in 18 local authority areas around the country, mostly in the East Midlands, Devon and Cornwall. If that result were replicated at a general election the UKIP would win more than 20 seats in Parliament.

That, of course, is not going to happen. As The Times suggests, the more likely outcome is that UKIP will have a small but destructive influence, which will hamper the Conservative's attempts to win or hold on to marginal seats.

This is well understood, but what particularly caught my attention was the comment of a "Conservative source", who said: "This is very much a protest vote. Come the general election people will vote differently". The assumption is – which is widely believed in the upper ranks of the Tories – that UKIP voters will "bite the bullet" come the general, and flock dutifully back to the Tories.

Apart from this being indicative of the classic signs of "denial", I believe there is another worrying element here, in that the hierarchy are totally misreading the electorate. They have not picked up the general mood – a mood of sullen resentment, an Anglo-Saxon mulishness which says "a pox on all your parties".

People will always grumble, of course, but this is different. It is very much a given in Army circles that the time to worry is when the troops are not grumbling. That is when morale is dangerously low. And the troops are not grumbling. They are silent, indifferent and resentful.

Howard cannot therefore assume the voters will come back at the general. He has to make it worth their while and so far, the way I see it is that his response to the Euros will have the opposite effect. The view is, "We gave them a kicking and they ignored it - so we'll just have to give them another one".

I really do not think the upper echelons have even begun to realise the voters are in a thoroughly rebellious mood and are simply not going to roll over and let Howard tickle their tummies. They will either stay at home or vote for anyone except Howard – and Labour will get in by default.

It is that fear that Howard is relying on, but he does not understand that the average – and even the more informed – voter sees no difference between the parties. Their line on Europe seems identical, and they are all obsessed with "schools 'n' hospitals".

In fact, contrary to the perceived wisdom in the Westminster bubble, "schools 'n' hospitals" is not the major preoccupation of the electorate – whatever the opinion polls might say. We are all familiar now with the way people respond to pollsters, telling them what they want to hear, so the data here are unreliable.

What more and more people see in this obsession is that it is a political refuge, a Europe-free area of policy where the parties can have a good ol' ideological ding-dong without the leaden influence of an issue with which they really do not want to be confronted.

That much was evident in the almost indecent haste with which the parties dropped any discussion of the EU after the Euros, and their desperate, almost manic rush to embrace domestic issues again. This is also a form of denial.

So where do we go from here? All the indications are that Howard, in electing to fight the battle on the ground of his enemies choosing – while ignoring the concerns of his own supporters – is going to get roundly thrashed. It is not beyond the realms of possibilities that the Conservatives will return a lower number of MPs at the next election than they did at the last, and even Howard’s seat is at risk.

As for the EU referendum, that too is at risk if the driver is a re-invigorated Labour Party at the head of the "yes" campaign, with fractured, demoralised Conservatives as the opposition. We are heading for rocky waters.

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