A Change is Gonna Come? Learning from the Tories

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Source: Opinium Research

How do parties regain power? Perhaps Ed Miliband should look to his opponents for some tips. Tim Bale’s new book on the Conservative party offers some important lessons. As one of the oldest parties around, the Conservatives , leaving aside the wilderness years between 1997 and 2005, have shown themselves ‘willing and able to do whatever it took to return to office as rapidly as possible’. The secret of the party’s success lies in its now legendary ability to change.  Are there any signs that the Labour party is now doing the same?

Bale points out that there are several ‘classic’ drivers for party change- a new leader, a heavy defeat or a shift in the dominant faction. Ed has at least two of these to start with though whether there is a fiercely group of Milibandites who’ve taken over the party must be open to question. Aside from these classic ‘forces for change’, there are some ‘hidden’ pressures such as

  • the pressure to ‘make right’ past wrongs or ‘match’ popular policy
  • the ‘domino’ effect of a particular policy leading to others
  • responding to ‘external’ events

So has Ed set the scene for change? Has he kick started the process? Ever since Tony Blair had his ‘Clause IV Moment’ the media has looked for the key moments when an opposition leader has emerged or sunk. Ian Duncan Smith’s ‘quiet man’ speech sunk him. David Cameron’s husky dogs made him. Was Ed’s ‘One nation party’ speech to conference his starting gun for change?

We can perhaps see some of Bale’s ‘hidden pressures’ at work. The speech matched policy and may lead to other commitments. On spending Ed made it clear ‘there will be many cuts that this Government made that we won’t be able to reverse even though we would like to’ something Ed Balls also emphasised. Ed’s recent moves on other policy, such as his speech on Climate change or position on the banks or Leveson or Europe, may bring a ‘domino’ effect on policy producing many unexpected ‘knock on’ commitments.

The speech also showed signs of Labour making up for past wrongs. Ed spoke of how ‘we can’t go back to Old Labour’ but that New Labour too had its faults ‘because New Labour, despite its great achievements, was too silent about the responsibilities of those at the top, and too timid about the accountability of those with power’. Labour’s adoption of spending plans may be atonement as well as opportunism. There was also a great deal of responding to events ‘no interest, from Rupert Murdoch to the banks, is too powerful to be held to account’. Incidentally, the speech stole a big chunk of political space where the left of the Conservative party used to be.

So what could we see? The pressures for change are certainly there. We may yet see a Labour party with new faces, a new way of working and a raft of new policies. Positions are still unclear and Ed’s big policy review is still in process, as Grant Schapps delights in pointing out here.

Perhaps the big unanswered question is whether the changing party can also propel the leader upwards. Ed’s own ratings remain low (see the graphic above and here). The question, as Bale points out, is how central the leader is to winning elections. Does the increased ‘personalisation’ of politics mean that any changes in the party will be undermined by Ed himself?

And of course, it all depends on how much the Tories are prepared to change too.  One thing Bale emphasises is how much governing parties’ shifts are driven by their desperation to avoid an anticipated defeat.  With an election looming, Cameron may surprise everyone by jettisoning some measures that are supposedly set in stone and running with others that right now no-one would predict.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.