The Conservative Party suffered a major electoral defeat in 1997 and it is only after more than a dozen years in opposition that it seems likely to win another election. Is that so surprising? After all, Labour didn't win an election for 14 years after 1951 and for 18 years after 1979. The Conservative Party has, however, demonstrated in the past a great capacity for rapid recovery and, to quote the late historian John Ramsden, "an appetite for power". Less doctrinaire than the Labour Party, it has been able, after setbacks, to shift policies and change its image with pragmatic adroitness in the pursuit of office. Tim Bale argues that, from the 1990s until David Cameron became leader, the party lost the ability to realign its policies and persona to the wishes of the electorate.
His thesis begins with the debacle of 1997. In the aftermath of defeat, the options were either a thoroughgoing revaluation of policies in the light of a Labour Party that had reinvented itself and a determined attempt to change an unsympathetic image, or perseverance with the policies that had been so successful in the recent past. William Hague chose the latter option and went down to defeat in 2001 while Michael Howard reverted to a platform similar to Hague's, with a similar result, in 2005. The party was out of touch with a changed England (it had already lost contact with most of Scotland and Wales) and particularly the new middle classes, which were more socially liberal than the "nasty party". Only when Cameron became leader was a successful effort made to "decontaminate the brand".
This is, of course, the analysis long accepted by leading figures in the party and it has now become the established version of the Tories' recent history. Bale provides a well-researched and very readable account of this thesis and for many it will be totally convincing, but are he and the general consensus correct? An alternative argument is that the Conservatives were never going to win an election in 2001 with the economy going well, Tony Blair retaining his charisma and Gordon Brown still embracing prudence. "Banging on" about Europe was not enough to win elections - but, as the party represented the majority view of the electorate on this issue, neither was it a reason why it lost. Howard, taking over at short notice after the departure of Iain Duncan Smith, did as well as could be expected in 2005, especially as the inequality of electoral divisions saw the Conservatives gain a majority of the votes in England but 93 fewer English seats than Labour.
Bale's account comes from the liberal centrist viewpoint that sees contemporary politics as largely about which party can most convincingly present itself as commanding the centre ground. He places, however, little emphasis upon what makes this argument so compelling: the increased homogeneity of most constituencies, which has led to the outcome of elections being determined by a number of marginal seats in which the result is in the hands of a few thousand swing voters, usually identified by focus groups as "moderate" or liberal-minded. Thus, loyal Labour and Conservative voters really do not matter, for neither group have elsewhere to go and the aim of all parties has to be the occupation of the rather crowded centre.
Whether this situation is immutable or whether the electoral landscape is changing is a question Bale does not address. He has little to say about Wales or Scotland, and the SNP and Plaid Cymru do not even appear in his index. In England, the prospect of the British National Party eating into Labour's traditional working-class vote and of the UK Independence Party eroding Conservative support is not as unlikely as Bale seems to think. An assorted bunch of independents targeting the seats of candidates besmirched with sleaze allegations or standing on local issues may also have an effect. None of this means that a Conservative victory is not likely and some of it may make it more likely, but it does mean that all the main parties may have to perform the difficult balancing act of appealing to liberal-centrist voters and maintaining core support.
Above and beyond its efficacy, there is a downside to the scramble for the middle ground. Any party with an appetite for power must, of course, stretch out beyond its traditional support and sensibly adapt its policies to the changing expectations and mores of society. Blair showed the way to capture the middle of Middle England and, as Bale demonstrates, Cameron has proved an attentive pupil in adjusting his party's image to new sensibilities and priorities. There is, however, a sterility in a political stage in which all parties play "grandmother's footsteps". This can result in caution, a fear of offending any powerful lobby, and a dearth of the sort of radical thinking that led to the intellectual counter-revolution that was the result of Conservative revaluations in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron
By Tim Bale
Polity, 504pp, £25.00
Published 22 January 2010