Party like it's 1991?


I found myself on Newsnight yesterday debating election promises with Danny Finkelstein from The Times. I say ‘debating’, but we were so in agreement that among the abusive text messages I received on the way home was one reading ‘why don’t you and that bloody Tory get married?’ This is an outrageous suggestion: Danny already has a wife.

 The Conservatives’ problems over tax raise the question of whether 2009 is most like 1991, before the ruling Party scored a stunning victory, or 1996, just before the Opposition won a landslide. Try these three key indicators:

 State of the country

Just like in 1991, the economy, public and family finances of 2009 are in a mess. In 1996 we were three years out of recession. People may not feel this is a time to take risks. In 1996 there was a powerful feeling that people wanted a fundamental change of direction in society. In 2009 people are angry with the Government but it isn’t clear they are rejecting Labour values in the visceral way they recoiled against Conservativism in 1996.

Verdict: 2009 more like 1991

 Standing of the leaders

David Cameron hasn’t hit the heights of popularity attained by Tony Blair in opposition but he isn’t that far short, with a current rating from MORI of plus 22%.  He is certainly considerably more credible with the voters than was Neil Kinnock. Gordon Brown has not plumbed the depths of John Major in 1996 (although Major was generally ahead of his Party in the polls) but he is a long way behind Major in 1991. 

Verdict: 2009 more like 1996

 Mindset of the parties

This isn’t easy to call. Although the Labour Party is hollowed out in many parts of the country, just as the Conservatives were in 1996, sitting MPs tell me they can still get people out canvassing and leafleting. More importantly, the vast majority of Labour politicians and members remain hungry to win again. This is in stark contrast to senior Tories in 1996, most of whom had given up on the next election and were much more interested in fighting about Europe than taking on Blair. 

On the other hand, the tax row over the last few days suggests there is still a significant group of Conservatives who put ideological rigour above political pragmatism. To suggest that the Conservatives commit themselves to major tax cuts for the most well off during a deep recession and on the verge of a crisis in public expenditure is surely barking. But it is also the firmly held position of a cluster of commentators around The Telegraph, The Spectator and the lively Conservative blogosphere. In having still to keep one eye on his Party faithful, while trying to woo a not quite convinced electorate, Osborne and Cameron share more in common with the dilemmas of Kinnock and Smith than the untrammelled authority of Blair and Brown.

 Verdict: On balance, 2009 is more like 1991.

 Two things drop out of this analysis: First, that 2010 will probably be somewhere between 1991 and 1996, which may be why most people I speak to predict the Conservatives will be the largest party but not, perhaps, with an overall majority; second, the reliance of the Conservatives on the leadership dimension. If Cameron were to lose credibility and Brown to gain it, the Conservatives would lose the one dimension with clear parallels to the New Labour landslide David Cameron wants so much to emulate.

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