British political pundits focus at the moment on the enigma that is Gordon Brown. Brown's motives, his friends, his ideas are scrutinised for any difference from Tony Blair- but as Politaholic notes today in the light of David Cameron's recent interview with Andrew Marr there is far less analysis around of what David Cameron is about. From one side you get many Tory activists and figures like Norman Tebbitt who worry that Cameron is leaving traditional Tory principles behind him and adopting a Blairite centre ground, such a view of Cameron at the extremes has led to a small group of people on the right defecting to the UK Independence Party. One UKIP blogger for instance recently referred to Cameron's supporters as centre left Cameroons.
The response of the left to Cameron has been to deny this movement. Politaholic on his blog for instance, in the article above I've linked to, considers Cameron a traditional rightwing Tory. Douglas Alexander, the young Brownite Secretary of State for Transport and Scotland, has argued that the election of Cameron brought the Tories a new singer, singing the same tune. Mr Alexander wrote an article with his colleague David Milliband in which they argued that Mr Cameron's compassionate conservatism was rooted in lessons learnt from George W. Bush. That Cameron's conservative party was the same old fossil, with a new coat of paint.
The problem with both schools of thought is that we don't as yet know what Cameron would do in government- the left and right in British politics are exceptionally alert to treachery, the left can always smell out a capitalist pretending to have a conscience, the right can always detect a communist who pretends to love companies. We all expect to be betrayed- but is there any way that we can understand Cameron and what he is doing, any way that goes beyond the idea of treachery or lying.
I don't want to say too much- because we don't to be honest know too much- but there is something that we can say about Cameron. Cameron's perception, in my opinion, flows like Blair's from an awareness of defeat- as a candidate in 2001, an advisor to Michael Howard and candidate in 2005, Cameron has only known defeat in his time in politics. In the Commons, unlike say Hague and Howard, he has only know the parliamentary manoervres of opposition not the tactics of government. Furthermore Cameron will be aware of exactly what the conservatives have lost since 1992- and it hasn't been exactly what people believe them to have lost.
These figures from 2005 which include comparrisons to 1997, done as a poll for the BBC and ICM are fascinating because they provide a class breakdown of the British vote- and there is one statistic about the Tory Vote that is very interesting indeed. In 1997 the Tories captured 43% of the vote from classes A and B, in 2005 they only managed to get 37% of the vote from the two richest classes within the country (hence one would assume the two classes most likely to vote for a right wing tax cutting party). 3% of that vote went to the liberals- who get 6% more of a share in those classes than they do amongst the average population, and 3% to others. If we go back to 1992 that trend becomes more pronounced, as Anthony Heath and John Curtis noted the Labour party gained disproportionately amongst white collar workers between 1992 and 1997.
One approach to this set of electoral facts was the Hague-Howard dog-whistle strategy that reaped some rewards in 2005. The idea was that the Conservative Party would turn into a quasi Republican party- a party that relied on cultural wedge issues like immigration to fuel its revival and return to power. The attempt for instance by Hague to make the 2001 election about Europe and 24 hours to save the pound was a gesture aimed at rousing the patriotic working classes to rise in Labour strongholds and in constituencies in Essex, Michael Howard famously tried the same with immigration- in a sense the Howard-Hague strategy came close to an attempt to turn Labour's flank, to capitalise upon the sense that Labour had deserted its traditional supporters and become a party of Islington, champagne drinking sophisticates.
Cameron's reversal of strategy to my mind is as much about the reversal of the Tory target audience. What the Tories have faced over the last couple of years is contempt from people who feel that the environment is an important issue, that gay and straight people are equal, that immigrants deserve respect, that single mothers need sympathy not condemnation and that the modern social world should be accepted. Many of those people are not socialists- not in favour of high taxes and many of them are precisely the kind of people who in many constituencies have deserted the conservative party and gone to the liberals and Labour. What Cameron therefore seems to me to be doing is attempting to make the conservatives accept the new social world of swift immigration, relaxed sexual morality- what you might call young professional morality.
Modernising the Conservative Party and modernising the Labour party don't mean the same things- as Iain Dale recently remarked to Peter Hennessy in many ways the Tories for the first time since the Twenties are facing competition as a non-socialist party from the liberals- what Cameron is trying to do is mould back together a conservative coalition. The Tories retain the rural backwoods, they retain many older professionals but they run last amongst the young and they are leaking votes amongst the middle and upper class- a socially liberal, economically liberal Tory party is possibly a package that might appeal to that demographic. Cameron is obviously about other things too- and I've exaggerated the degree to which this is a new approach- but I do think that it is part of the new Cameroon strategy.
It might work, it might not, but it seems like a reasonable interpretation. There are connections between this and the revival of one nation Toryism- there is a sense in which Cameron wants to enlarge the cultural definition of conservatism, to avoid the Tories descending back to their ghettos and revive the Tories as a national party. Part of that involves attempting to recapture the young and the middle class- and particularly the intersection of those two groups.
We shall see if he succeeds...