By-election discontentment

For the past few weeks, there has been a very interesting discussion about the nature and future of the UK Conservative Party. It was spearheaded by ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, starting with his first blog post which sought to define “Mainstream Conservatism“, which Montgomerie believes is what most Tory Party members want instead of the “Liberal Conservatism” that is being practiced now by the Tory party in a coalition government with the Lib Dems.

Several other people have contributed blog posts to the debate, and the debate has spread to other fora, such as the Spectator blogs.

It’s quite interesting to read the discussions. Many commenters feel the entire exercise is either confusing or a waste of time or a bit of both. Others think there needs to be a third option. Not entirely certain what they’ve decided to label it, but it essentially comes down to very traditional Conservatism – even “Mainstream” Conservatism is too much of a sell-out for these folk. Personally, in reading these discussions, I tend to think it’s really a debate between “Electable” Conservatism and “Unelectable” Conservatism – but the purists in the party would prefer to see the party remain true to what they believe to be its core values, traditions and beliefs – and if the general electorate has no interest in voting for that, so be it. It’s this lot in particular who are very dismayed with David Cameron’s leadership – although quite a few who fall in the more “Mainstream” camp also share that dismay. In their view, Cameron has tried to make the party more electable by moving it closer to the centre – and yet still failed to gain a majority in the last election, despite “near perfect” election conditions (i.e. against the hapless Gordon Brown and a very tired Labour Party which had been in power for 13 years). Much the same argument can be made (and has been) against the leader of Canada’s federal Conservative Party, Stephen Harper – he’s repeatedly failed to gain a majority government despite facing incredibly weak opposition, particularly from the Liberal Party.

I’ve blogged about these concerns many Conservatives have with David Cameron before – he’s not a “real” Conservative, he prefers a coalition to an outright majority because it allows him to ignore Conservative Party policy he disagrees with, he’s too “liberal”, too “centrist”, etc. And certainly, Cameron’s recent comments regarding the up-coming by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth have raised more than a few eyebrows among many Conservatives.

I’d written about the events in Oldham East and Saddleworth in this post – Labour’s Phil Woolas was stripped of his seat by an Elections Court for violating the Representation of the People Act 1983, an extremely rare occurrence. Woolas attempted to appeal the ruling, but lost again, and so a by-election has been called, to be held on January 13th.

Given the current political climate in the UK, there’s heightened interest in this by-election. In the May 2010 election, it was a very close race between Labour and the Lib Dems, with Labour (Woolas) winning by only 103 votes. Given the tactics Woolas used in that campaign, one might assume that voters would turn their back on Labour and elect the Lib Dem candidate (the same one who ran in May). However, the Lib Dems have become rather toxic to many because of their entering into a coalition with the Conservatives (many vote Lib Dem in an attempt to block the Conservatives from winning, not because they really support the Lib Dems), and in particular, for the party’s backtracking on key party promises by supporting government policies such as increasing university tuition fees (the Lib Dems had promised to get rid of fees altogether, or at the very least, to not vote for any increase).

Oldham East and Saddleworth is considered a three-way marginal seat (meaning it’s not considered a safe seat for any one party). In the May election, the Conservative candidate finished third, about 2500 votes behind the Lib Dem candidate.  Consequently, under normal conditions, one would think the Conservatives would expect a similar outcome. But, as I’ve stated, these aren’t normal conditions, and at the very least, the Party faithful expect that the Party will make a serious run for the seat since they think circumstances mean they might win – both Labour and the Lib Dems are suffering image problems.

Those expectations were somewhat dashed when David Cameron, when asked about the by-election whilst on a trip to Brussels to deal with EU matters seemed to endorse the Lib Dems moreso than his own Party’s candidate:

Obviously, in a coalition, you always wish your partners well. I think the coalition has worked extremely well. All I would say is, the context of the by-election is the MP elected at the election has been found in court to have told complete untruths about his opponent.

I think that is an extremely important context. In that context, we wish our partners well. They had an extremely tough time. All the unfairnesses and untruths about their candidate – he’s now been exhonerated. So of course I wish them well.

We’ll be patrolling the same streets and fighting for the same votes. But I hope that will be done in a slightly more friendly manner than it has in the past.

As well, the Telegraph reports today that Cameron personally intervened to “neuter” the Tory campaign in the riding. This on top of earlier fears outlined over on ConservativeHome that the Party HQ wasn’t fully intent on winning the seat.

There has been a lot of speculation off and on again about a possible electoral pact between the Conservatives and Lib Dems in the next general election. Both parties deny any interest in pursuing anything like that, but that doesn’t prevent many from reading signs in every utterance and action that the coalition might become permanent. Cameron has a genuine interest in seeing the Lib Dems do well in Oldham East and Saddleworth – Nick Clegg’s party has been under enormous strain and Clegg in particular has become probably the most hated man in UK politics. A by-election win (or at the very least, being very competitive) would do much shore up sagging Lib Dems spirits. In practical terms, the Conservatives don’t need this seat as much as the Lib Dems do.

It’s easy for me, as an interested by-stander, to say kudos to Cameron for trying to help his coalition partners. If I were a Tory supporter, however, I doubt I would be so generous. Cameron will have to tread carefully or his already disgruntled backbench might start causing far more trouble for the government down the road.

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