THE BLOG

The Strange Rebirth of Conservative England

21/10/2014 15:11 BST | Updated 21/12/2014 10:59 GMT

For many it never really went away but the political agenda is currently being dominated by the issues, politicians and parties of the right.

I need to start by apologising to George Dangerfield for mangling the title of his classic text. Whilst Dangerfield considered the decline of the Liberal Party, the current era has seen issues most closely associated with the right become almost hegemonic. Labour and the Lib Dems have yet to make a serious dent in this agenda and for Labour a reliance of the core vote appears to be, at least, a main strand of their campaigning.

Arguments continue to take place between political scientists about the 'ownership' of issues. My own favourite when I did my PhD was Herbert Kitschelt. There is a question valid as to whether any political party really 'owns' issues in the same way that they used to. However, one of Tony Blair's great strengths was to take the fight to the Tories on their own patch most especially law and order ('tough on crime, tough on the causes of the crime') and economic competence. The Conservatives had ceded ground themselves, at least in the eyes of voters, on the economy through Black Wednesday which gave Labour the chance to make inroads. Blair and Gordon Brown, together with prudence, were able to make the most of that opportunity.

Labour now though appears unable to wrestle the political agenda from the Conservatives and UKIP. In fact, Jon Cruddas has even written about Labour being a conservative party. The big issues for the electorate are those where the right have an inbuilt majority. A recent blog by ComRes revealed the following findings:

Q. Which of the following do you think should be the biggest priorities for the Government at the present time?

Issue, % choosing

Controlling immigration, 52%

Managing the NHS, 32%

Keeping down the cost of everyday items, 30%

Making the welfare system fairer, 21%

Promoting UK economic growth, 20%

Immigration has emerged as the big issue of the day. It is seen as the cause of the pressure on places in the NHS, welfare payments, housing, schools etc. The Conservatives appeared willing to take UKIP head-on over the issue but a widely expected major speech by Cameron on immigration may now not happen. Such a speech was widely perceived as an attempt to engage UKIP as part of the campaign for the Rochester by-election. UKIP though seemed very happy to have this debate and now there may not be a speech at all.

With the exception of the NHS, the main issues are all 'of the right'. The Conservatives did try to grab the NHS from Labour at the last election but Lansley's reforms and the recent fall-out about who among the Cabinet actually understood them, means the best they can now hope for is not to lose any further ground. The blame seemed to land in Oliver Letwin's lap but the whole decisions-making process seemed to say more about Cameron and Osborne's handling of the situation.

Labour meanwhile appear unwilling, or unable, to place a clear stake in the ground on Europe, immigration, and another current touchstone for the right, 'English Votes for English Laws'. They are also lagging badly behind on economic competence.

People do not feel better off despite the recent economic improvement. This ensures that Miliband's 'cost of living crisis' has a great deal of resonance and a widespread belief that it is real as demonstrated by Ipsos Mori findings. But where it comes to views of Labour's economic competence the results are much lower. In other words, Labour is right about the problem but isn't trusted to do anything about it. So whilst ComRes research shows that around three quarters of adults (72%) say, "despite the economy growing, I don't feel better off" (ComRes/ITV News, October 2014), a LabourList look at polling showed that the Conservatives are actually increasing their lead on the economy.

The Conservatives will be hoping that 'it's the economy, stupid' but going harder on Europe and immigration may risk alienating the business vote with some already warning about EU withdrawal and immigration policies.

It has been suggested by some commentators that the Conservatives will rue Osborne's speech at the party conference which suggested that the working poor will contribute more in the coming years to the reduction of the deficit. In addition, talk in recent days of a 'triple dip' in the economy puts the economic credibility of the whole Government at risk. But as things stand, Cameron and Osborne are still able to point to Labour's 'bankrupting' of the economy.

It is also interesting that apparent dissatisfaction with politics and politicians is coming out with a movement in England to the right, most notably UKIP. The same though is not true in Scotland where the SNP is the winner. Just look at the rising number of members and how seriously Labour is worried about losing 15-20 seats at the next General Election.

So Conservative England, including UKIP, is invigorated and dominating the political agenda. But an agenda of the right does not guarantee a victory of the right. It may though mean that the post-2015 agenda is dominated by their priorities, regardless of the victor (or victors).