Wednesday, April 06, 2005

What is Michael Howard thinking?

Via the Yorkshire Ranter, there is a link to a series of Freedom Party posters in Austria, bearing the slogan "he says what Vienna thinks". Now, judging by the date of the post, I am guessing that the Freedom Party (until recently, the party of Haider) followed the Tory party lead in copying the slogan.

As far as I am concerned, the new Conservative slogan is a masterpiece of political campaigning (not that it has won my vote). The major problem that faces the Tories in their fight to become electable is, quite simply, the term "Tory" or "Conservative". Opinion poll data shows that people are generally afraid to openly admit support for right-wing parties, and this is not a phenomenon solely limited to Britain. For all that the Tories performed terribly at the last election, their vote share was still higher than the pollsters had predicted.

Fringe parties, in particular UKIP, are able to gain more support due to their complete focus on one issue masking their hard-right agenda. For the Tories, however, to concentrate on attacking Europe, whilst a popular policy, would actually give the image of nothing at all having changed. Instead, they needed to find some kind of message which will convince people the Tories are on their side, without making it absolutely explicit they will be voting Tory.

"Are you thinking what we're thinking?" seems to fit the bill pretty well, from my viewpoint. It has amazed me, and better-known pundits, but the Tories have succeeded in pinning immigration and law and order issues to the heart of the election agenda. By moving debate on to Tory ground, the new slogan works very effectively. It subtly places into the voter's head that the Tories actually share their concerns.

This leads nicely into the next part of the Tory strategy, which is essentially to campaign not as a party of ideas, but as a party of better management. That is why cuts to bureaucracy and waste are being touted. It is not a particularly impressive platform - ideologically it is at best uncertain, and at worst trying to introduce Thatcherite principles into areas which should be left alone. In many areas it is indistinct from Labour. But in the "cleaner hospitals, school discipline, controlled immigration" model, it is trying to play on the lack of trust in Tony Blair.

IDS used to repeat the mantra "nobody believes a word he says any more". Howard seems to take this for granted, and is basing his campaign strategy on better management of Britain - based on the fact no-one will believe Blair. I doubt this will be as effective as the other ploy. For a start, all politicians are considered liars nowadays. Although Howard speaks of a "timetable for action", it isn't something which will find widespread support in a cynical electorate.

But more importantly, it will not make the major breakthroughs the Tories are hoping for because they still don't appear to be a principled party. Attacks on political correctness seem to be more populist than principled; it is still not possible to entirely pin down what you would be getting from Prime Minister Howard. Even the Tories recognise the need for a coherent platform - that is why "beliefs" gets a prominent position on their website's sidebar. At the moment, only Labour are successful in getting such a position across, and that is why they are more convincing as a government than any other party.