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An Assessment of the Performance of Right of Centre Parties in the 2001 General Election

by David Ball

The Ghost of the Referendum Party

In assessing the performance of the parties of the right it is necessary to take into account this missing party. In the 1997 general Election its candidates polled in the 1% – 4% range in the majority of seats. Even if some of its supporters did not vote this time, those that did must have gone somewhere. In fact it is possible that voters politically aware enough to support it then could have turned out in disproportionate numbers this time, and looking at the votes of the minor parties it would be safe to assume that a good percentage of the voters returned to the Tory fold whence they mainly came. This may mean that of those who voted Tory in 1997 a small percentage could have actually switched to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with the numbers being more than counterbalanced by the ex Referendum voters turning out in larger numbers.

The Conservative Party

The fact that the appalling result in 1997 was about to be repeated was probably obvious to all, although the party leadership naturally could not admit this. The percentage share increase in the Tory vote was so marginal as to be hardly statistically significant, and the only question is now whether they can in the next four years somehow recover from this sustained lack of public support.

Why then did the fortunes of the Tory Party fail to rise over the last four years? The theory that is rapidly becoming the accepted version of events is that the party moved too far to the right and alienated its former centre ground voters. In fact looking at the positions of the three major parties, on many issues the Tories were very much occupying the same ground as Labour. Mr Hague at one point expressed a desire for an Asian Prime Minister, which could hardly be described as extreme right wing! Similarly the way the party hierarchy shouted down John Townsend and forced his humiliating climb-down did nothing to encourage anyone to move to the Tory Party on grounds of race. Labour has appeared to be tough on crime and has to some extent stolen this Conservative issue. The Tories are now openly tolerant of homosexuality and their ‘free market’ economic policies have been largely adopted by Labour, and in some cases, like the privatisation of Air Traffic Control, pushed beyond what even Mrs Thatcher thought possible!

Thus far from alienating its ex middle ground supporters it is possible that they could in reality discern very little difference between Labour and the Conservatives, and in the end decided to stick with the devil they knew rather than chancing it with a Tory Party seemingly still at war with itself.

The latter remark touches upon the divisions on Europe. This is the party’s Achilles’ Heel and will remain so unless it finally splits. The two wings, with the anti-federalists being the larger at present, are philosophically poles apart and will continue to skirmish for the foreseeable future. A party divided on such an important issue will continue to appear weak to the public.

Additionally the party has still not lost the odour of corruption that clung to it in the latter years of the Major Government. People still remember what went on then, and when faced with the appalling practices of the Labour Government quite rightly spotted the hypocrisy of the Tories complaining about them.

Finally the leadership of William Hague has to be called into question. He was undoubtedly a fine Parliamentary debater and could often best Tony Blair; it was very sensible of the latter to avoid a television debate as he could only loose support as a result of it and not gain any. Unfortunately comments over the years about drinking 14 pints et al are the kind of gaffes that are not easily forgotten and forgiven. The idea that Portillo will somehow be more attractive to the voters is a misnomer, and his past may well alienate a large percentage of the ordinary members. A change of leader will not in itself necessarily turn around the fortunes of the Tory Party.

The UK Independence Party

This organisation is well known for factional fighting, and the knives will be currently being well honed! Its performance can best be described as dismal, and the money it lost in deposits alone is a major loss to any future anti-Euro campaign. The party persists in fighting mainly National elections with very few Council seats ever being contested, and its policies are mainly on the EU issue. Allegedly they published a more comprehensive set of policies this time, but the standard leaflet despatched in large numbers dealt solely with their European Policy.

Their electoral tactics are the reverse of what is required to actually achieve anything. Only by building a local base can they ever hope to get anywhere nationally, and that means having local policies on issues that are far distant from lofty discussions on the merits of the single currency. In many respects they are logically correct in that everything in the UK is now to some extent affected by the EU, but they electorate are not aware of this and tend to see parties which base all their emphasis on Europe as being out of touch. A strong position on Europe is a vote winner, but only if issues such as Health, Education and Transport are given their correct weight in the minds of the electorate.

It is possible that after this immense effort that achieved nothing UKIP will disintegrate over the next few months. The only alternative is to reform themselves dramatically, which would even include a change of name.

The Far Right

The number of candidates fielded by the far-right was substantially down on the 1997 election. The BNP gained a substantial vote in three constituencies in the North West with this almost certainly resulting from both the Oldham and Leeds riots, and the rising tensions over the preceding few years. Elsewhere the vote for them was patchy with better results than 1997 being obtained in some seats and worse in others. The reality is that, leaving aside the three North Western seats, nowhere in the country is the far-right anywhere near even challenging the main political parties. There are no far-right councillors anywhere in the country and it is highly unlikely that a parliamentary breakthrough will be achieved without a local one happening first. The far-right would have been better off concentrating on the council elections rather than the national poll. The problem is that many of the issues that arise in local elections are not of interest to the majority of active far-right supporters, and that the hooligan element will continue to make them unelectable, especially in the crucial battleground of middle England. Indeed some of the groups seem to exist mainly to get involved in political trouble with their electoral approach being a bit of an afterthought.

The far-right will not achieve anything in the country unless there is a major breakdown where the fabric of society is threatened. Even after the explosion in Oldham the BNP was unable to attract more than 25% of the white vote in one part of the town, which is under half of what they would need to actually win the seat. The idea that society is about to collapse was possibly a tenable theory in the mid 1970s, but the establishment has proven well able to manage the decline of Britain in a manner that prevents the extremes of both right and left from ever having an opportunity to make substantial headway.

Conclusion

There is a vacuum in British politics between the broad centre and the far-right that can be best described as the populist right. The only party really positioned partially in this ground is UKIP who truthfully on many social issues are middle ground. Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph readers actually have no political party that represents their views. There is a gap that needs to be filled, and that is where the Freedom Party is heading!


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