On May 6 British voters handed themselves a hung Parliament for the first time since 1974. No political party has a governing majority. This has surprised most pundits who have assumed for several years that the Conservatives would reclaim government in Britain by 2010, ending 13 years of Labour rule and the tenure of Gordon Brown, the prime minister everyone loves to hate.
The reasons for the conservative’s disappointing performance are complex. Certainly the surprisingly adroit performance in the first-ever prime ministerial debates by Nick Clegg, the even-more-telegenic-than-David Cameron leader of the Liberal Democrat party, did not help. But Clegg’s lustre – which became known as “Cleggmania” – eventually wore off by election day, and the Lib Dems ended up losing five seats.
The real reason for the Conservatives disappointing performance lay elsewhere. To many, it seemed that David Cameron, the Conservatives’ young and telegenic leader, represented a new type of Tory politician – one concerned with social justice and the environment while remaining true to core beliefs about smaller government and enterprise.
Yet the bigger issue may well be this: the Conservatives, like their rivals, failed to make a compelling case how to restore an environment of growth and opportunity capable of bringing Britain out of its profound economic doldrums.
Given Britain’s fiscal situation and a widely spread sense of economic malaise, the overall paucity of good policy ideas and public messages about opportunity and economic recovery is difficult to fathom. The fact that the Conservatives – erstwhile harbingers of enterprise and growth – managed to remain vague on economic fundamentals is particularly astounding.
Days before the election, only 29 percent of voters said they trusted the Conservatives to do the best job dealing with unemployment, compared to 28 percent who preferred Labour. On the economy overall, 37 percent believed Conservatives were the best party compared to 36 percent who preferred Labour’s approach, an amazing result given the fact that Labour has controlled the government for thirteen years. Only on taxes did the British public clearly prefer the Tories to Labour, 31 to 24 percent, which is likely owing to the fact that the Conservatives very publicly opposed Labour’s promise to raise the National Insurance tax (similar to the payroll tax in the U.S.). This ended up as the only economic issue for which Tories showed any public passion in the weeks leading up to the election, and the opinion polls suggest their message got through. But they didn’t capitalize on the lesson.
The roots of the problem run deep. British politicians have grown too accustomed to thinking about safety and security rather than policies that would require taking some risks for growth. Each party admitted in one way or another that public spending cuts would be necessary to deal with Britain’s deficit, but none – including, shockingly, the Conservatives – laid out an aggressive vision of how these cuts could be combined with the types of policies needed to increase entrepreneurship, create more jobs, attract investment, and promote greater overall opportunity in the economy.
Consider the third and final televised party leader debate, which focused on the economy. Cameron, to his credit, was the only one to use the word “entrepreneur” or one of its derivatives. He did so three times. The three candidates together only spoke of “growth” six times, and no one ever said anything about creating opportunity. They spoke a lot about the importance of jobs but talked about what is required to create them less than a half dozen times. Meanwhile, Clegg used the word “fair” or one of its derivatives 19 times, and Brown did the same 12 times – addressing everything from the need to make tax increases fair to making compensation for bankers fair. Cameron never engaged in fairness drivel, but he also never countered by laying out a strong growth oriented agenda. In a fundamental way, he punted away his best issue.
Months earlier, the Conservatives launched an ad campaign with Cameron’s face plastered all over England with the less-than-comprehensible slogan: “We can’t go on like this. I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS.” With a budget deficit of 11.1 percent of GDP and a national debt of nearly £1 trillion (the interest on which costs the government more than it spends on education), you don’t have to be a financial wizard to know you can’t cut the deficit without touching the NHS.
Then, at the end of the campaign, Cameron’s team began using the expression “Big Society” as its unifying theme. No one really knew what to make of it. Was it the same as a Fat Society? Was Big better than Effective or Strong? In other words, total tripe. The Conservatives seemed to be promoting social rotundity while saying little about the future of growth, enterprise, education reform (for which the party has a very forward-looking plan) and anything that would create opportunity in this increasingly fragmented, class-bound society.
All of this is somewhat surprising, given that the Conservative manifesto has important things to say about creating an environment favorable to investment, lower taxes, and progress through important growth sectors such as high-tech exports. It certainly compares well with Labour’s manifesto, which talks blithely about tax hikes and a growing public sector with no sensible formula to restore long-term growth. That the Tories did not exploit this difference seems inexplicable but as a result, they did not look different enough from their competitors to earn the solid majority that was once seen as all but inevitable.
Ryan Streeter is a Senior Fellow at the London-based Legatum Institute.