Monday, April 11, 2005

Shy Tory Syndrome & Dibley Disease

There’s already a lot of comment on the slimline Tory manifesto, and until I manage to get a copy, I’ll save any comments I may have. However, I thought I’d post today on a favourite topic of mine– Dibley Disease.

The fact that Tory voters seem statistically less likely to admit their voting intentions to pollsters is a fact that has launched considerable confusion amongst them. This so-called “Shy Tory” phenomenon may even be the reason that the internet-based polling company YouGov achieved- contrary to expectations -the closest results in 2001 (see their form, here). The key error of the others was to over-estimate the scale of the Tories’ defeat, with only YouGov getting close to accurately predicting the Tory vote in the General Election, Scottish Parliamentary elections and numerous others. Is it because Tories are shy of admitting their blue affections to a human voice on the telephone (or, in the sole case of MORI, doorstep callers too), but not the seemingly anonymous internet? Some think so. (For such polling excitement and more, this blog is your nirvana).

It really does strike me- excepting for a moment the undoubted bias with which my experiences are tainted -that the Tories’ biggest problem, amongst many, is the image they have as a party. In the same way that Labour was seen as doctrinaire and incompetent in the Thatcher years, blighting them under Blair rebranded the entire package, the Tories now find themselves stereotyped as cold, ruthless and greedy reactionaries. This has to be a big problem, if people actively feel that voting Comservative is socially unacceptable. While some will become the pollsters’ “Shy Tories”, there must be an effect, subconcious or concious, in how some voters cast their ballots. It seems to me that this is the biggest challenge the Tories have to face, and whilst their “gypsies, tramps and thieves” message is exactly the wrong thing to dismiss this, the tax cuts and professionalism they’re showing does seem to be working. Most of all, I still think Michael Howard’s rhetoric about ‘hard-working people’ who ‘play by the rules’ is the cleverest part of his campaign. It isn’t substance but the way he pitches himself, and it may work.

To return to my initial point, however, he needs this centrist way to redeem this party in the eyes of the public. For me, I realised how massive this perception was when watching an episode of the Vicar of Dibley, years ago. In it, the mean and grouchy character, David, reforms, and part of the montage of his redemption is him binning his Conservative party membership card. My day job is researching nineteenth century anti-slavery, and one of the interesting developments there is the use of pro-slavers in literature. Anybody who was pro-slavery, after about 1840, was being used as an easy literary stereotype, as a whole host of morally backward and irreligious connotations came with it. The fact that a TV comedy- even one so dire as the Vicar of Dibley -could use Tory party membership as a reduction of a character’s (negative) personality is quite telling. There was a certain expectation, evidently, that the public would understand exactly what Tory membership represented, in terms of social irrespectability and .

So, I’m looking for how much Howard can shift the social shame in being a Tory. If he is to lead his party back to success, it’ll only be through curing the “Dibley disease”.