While the talk of the UK election next week is the rise of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and the gaffes of Gordon Brown, David Cameron remains the most likely next prime minister of the UK.
The Conservative party has consolidated its small but consistent lead in the polls following the three Leaders’ debates. While an outright majority in parliament is no longer as sure as it looked ahead of Cleggmania, the collapse of Labour in the polls points to a high probability that the Tories will emerge as the biggest party in the House of Commons. Forget the predictions of the swingometer, the popular tool which relies on translating polls into uniform swings across every electorate to predict seat numbers. If Labour collapses to third place or close, the Conservatives could well win far more seats than are currently predicted.
It is not only the future of Labour and the Liberal Democrats that are at stake — both are vying for the mantle of leader of progressive opinion in the kingdom, with polls showing the greatest shift in voter allegiances from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, particularly in the cities.
David Cameron however has also made a play for the progressive vote. His mission to transform the Tories into a modern party with broad appeal echoes the efforts of former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull in Australia. Turnbull tried to tranform the conservative Liberal Party into a more liberal, more progressive entity. Nowhere was this more evident than on environmental issues, where Turnbull warned the Liberals that to deny climate change would destroy the party’s chances at governing for a generation to come. Both Turnbull and Cameron have seen their parties’ association with outdated ideas on environmental and social debates around gender equality and sexuality threaten their popularity in urban electorates and with young people.
Thus Cameron’s strategy after the failure of Michael Howard’s dog-whistling conservatism in 2005 was to transform the Conservatives into a progressive party that supports environmental protection, gay rights and even, in the words of his election manifesto, the "Big Society". The Big Society concept was deliberately chosen because it sounds at least like the exact opposite of Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip, "there’s no such thing as society". Cameron even changed the logo of the Conservative party to a fuzzy new green oak tree to emphasise his environmental credentials. The re-branding was similar to Blair’s "New Labour" in 1997.
Cameron encountered the same problem with this strategy as Turnbull did in Australia. Not everyone believed it, and in his own party the voices of disbelief were the loudest.
On the issue of equal rights for gays and lesbians for example, Cameron has had to fight an ongoing battle with his own "bigots" — just over the last week a Scottish Conservative candidate has been dumped after he denounced gays as "not normal". Another Tory MP had to backtrack over remarks that bed and breakfast owners should not have to serve gay couples.
On the European front, Cameron has had to defend his party’s ongoing association with homophobic parties of the Right in the European Parliament by sending gay Tory MP Nick Herbert to attend a Pride march in Warsaw. The result, according to one survey by Pink News UK has been a collapse in support for conservatives among gay and lesbian voters, who have been shifting in droves to the Liberal Democrats. It is not that Cameron is insincere in his commitment to equal rights, but rather it is a case of these indiscretions by other Tories reminding progressive voters that Cameron has not yet brought his whole party with him.
Then there have been the attacks on Cameron’s "Big Society" concept. For a start, it was too clever. No one seemed to know what it was — least of all conservatives to whom the phrase was as novel as it would be to Margaret Thatcher. Yet progressive voters were not convinced either. Combined with a program of big spending cuts, "big society" seemed to simply be another way of saying small government. Just days after announcing the big society, Cameron declared there would have to be "big cuts" in disadvantaged regions of Britain where the state was "too big". What Cameron was essentially saying was that people should turn to each other and not to government for help in realising their needs and potential.
A big society might sound like a noble concept, but what it really masked was government devolving its responsibilities to charities and families and individuals. Citizens’ new responsibilities would even include electing their own police and school principals. Charities could be expected to take an even bigger role in the delivery of welfare than they do currently. Since the confused and hostile reception to the manifesto, the big society vanished almost without a trace from Cameron’s campaign, further reinforcing the suspicion that his commitment to progressive change is a mask rather than the reality.
All this has given Cameron a credibility problem with progressive voters in particular, but also among the Conservative base, that continues to open up the field for Nick Clegg to emerge as a more genuine proponent of change in this election.
While the Liberal Democrat surge has reinvigorated the election by providing more progressive choice, the frustration of the Gillian Duffys of Little England is palpable. The pensioner who confronted Brown and complained she could not talk about immigrants, only to be described as a "bigot" really has no champion in this election in the three main parties.
Some may argue that so many Tories are playing dog whistle politics and will stand to gain these votes anyway, but Cameron seems genuinely committed, at least personally, to leading a progressive and modern Conservative party. On issues like gay marriage and climate change, Cameron has gone out of his way to reach out to new voters. Like Turnbull however, he has struggled to carry the conservatives in his party with him. As the Liberal Democrats took the wind out of his progressive sails, he has also had to reach back into the Conservative base to shore up his core vote on election day, whether it be by ditching "big society" or the earlier "vote blue, go green" slogan that accompanied his party’s change of logo.
Cameron’s one advantage that Turnbull never had however was that victory has always been immanent, and the mantle of prime-minister-in-waiting gave him an authority that Turnbull lacked. With victory at hand, the Conservatives have proven far more disciplined than their Australian counterparts. Whether Cameron will be allowed to continue leading the Conservatives depends on whether he wins the election. Whether he remains the "Green Tory" could well depend upon whom it is his parliamentary majority relies — the traditionalists in his own party, or the Liberal Democrats.
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