Sunday 30 January 2011

Cameron no longer more centrist than his party, say voters

Voters no longer believe that David Cameron is more centrist than the Conservative party as a whole, having changed their minds about this since May. David Cameron's performance in his first eight months as Prime Minister has led voters to consider him more right-wing than they thought he was last May.

That is one of the striking and potentially politically significant findings of a YouGov/Prospect poll, briefly reported by Peter Kellner in the new issue of the monthly magazine. Kellner's short article is behind the subscriber paywall, but the useful graphic summary is freely available. Voters are asked to use a 200 point scale, with 0 as the centre, and where -100 is very left-wing and +100 is very right wing.

The average voter continues to think of themselves as very close to the political centre, though there has been a mild lean leftwards among the electorate. The January 2011 survey now puts the average 3 points to the left-of-centre, compared to 1 point right-of-centre in May 2010.

The case that this is a Tory-led coalition is strengthened by how the last eight months have shifted perceptions of David Cameron rightwards, while Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are seen as having flipped from the centre-left to the centre-right. At the same time, Ed Miliband is perceived as shifting his party leftwards, though both the Labour leader and his party remain slightly closer to the average voter and the political centre than David Cameron or the Conservatives.

Cameron is now as right-wing as his party, according to voter perceptions

At the time of the General Election last May, voters placed the Tory party at 48 points to the right of centre on a 0-100 scale, but perceived Cameron as being somewhat more centrist, placing him at 37 points to the right. This month, Cameron has a +48 score, having moved 11 points to the right in voter perceptions, while perceptions of his party remain pretty steady at +47, shifting one point left on the index.

Conservative voters - at 33 points to the right last May, and 32 points today - considered themselves more moderate than how either Cameron or the party were seen by the electorate as a whole. But Cameron was perceived (by all voters) as being quite close to this position, just six points away from Tory voters to their right; he is now seen as being 16 points to the right of Tory voters.

Voters now see Nick Clegg as having flipped to the right

Voters believe that Nick Clegg has flipped from the centre-left to the centre-right, moving 23 points to the right in voter perceptions since May 2010, beginning 13 per cent along the left scale and moving to 10 points right of centre. This post-election rightwards shift in perceptions of Clegg is more than twice as big as that of Cameron, though Clegg is seen as much more centrist than Cameron having been perceived as somewhat left-of-centre, and considerably closer on left-right positioning to the median voter than either the Tory or Labour leader. (The opinion polls show that being closer to the median voter is not always everything in politics, as Kellner notes).

In May, the LibDems were seen as a centre-left party, 17% from the centre along the left-wing scale. Voters no longer think that this is the case. The Coalition has shifted perceptions of the party 18 points to the right, and they are now almost dead centre, 1 point to the right, as a party.

LibDem voters in May placed themselves 17 points to the left-of-centre - with five times as many voters placing themselves left as right. The smaller number who say they still intend to vote LibDem still place themselves 7 points left of centre, but this shift rellects the loss of many left-leaning LibDems, with the party now routinely polling at half of its May 2010 level.

Initial perceptions are that Ed Miliband is to the left of his party, and Gordon Brown, yet still closer to the median voter than Cameron

Ed Miliband is perceived as shifting his party some way leftwards. He is placed 45 points left of the centre, with his party at 39 points to the left, a shift of 12 points from 27

Labour voters place themselves 33 points to the left, having been 31 points left last May.

Voters placed Gordon Brown and his party 27 points to the left of centre last May.

It is interesting that polling consistently showed that the electorate thought Gordon Brown significantly more centrist than David Cameron, since you may have struggled to find many newspaper colunmists who knew this. (Next Left did note that Cameron was placed twice as far from the centre as Brown back in Autumn 2008, reporting a Populus survey of left-right perceptions).

Voters place Miliband 42 points left of where they, on average, place themselves, and Cameron 51 points to their right. Miliband is placed 12 points to the left of his own party's supporters, and Cameron 16 points to the right of his.

What the Prospect piece doesn't reveal is where different groups of voters place politicians. For example, both Cameron and Milband's ratings could well be driven by political opponents placing them further right/left respectively than their own supporters do. (An interesting recurring feature Pew ideological mapping surveys in the US is that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton polarise opinions between supporters who think they are centrist moderates and opponents who place them way out to the left, whereas friends and foes could broadly agree on where to place the centre-right John McCain or the more ideological George W Bush on the scale, as this 2008 example shows).

The Ed Milband/Labour findings may create some grumblings inside his own party, though the findings reflect a lack of public knowledge of the Labour leader after his first few months. Future perceptions of the Labour leader and his party, after four months, are likely to be considerably more malleable than those of David Cameron, who has had more than five years.


Rethinking the Tory strategy debate

The Cameron/Conservative findings - were they sustained in further surveys - could have important implications for live debates about government strategy and communications. They suggest that the terms in which the central debate about Tory strategy - including the new communications role - have been conducted are somewhat out-of-date and may need to change.

The General Election inquest debate inside the Conservative Party has largely been between those like ConservativeHome edior Tim Montgomerie whose detailed election inquest concluded that think the modernising message was too vague and lacked content, and the counter-argument that the Tories were too Tory and not Cameron/modernising enough. This leads some insiders - notably Ian Birrell, who has been Steve Hilton's first choice candidate for the Downing Street communications role, to argue that "brand detox" remains the Tories' top priority.

Both sides of this long-running argument assume a strong distinction between Cameronism and his party's core agenda. Meanwhile, the public believe that what was once a fairly nuanced difference of emphasis between Cameron and his party may well be disappearing entirely.

The YouGov findings might provide some historical support for the Hilton/Birrell position: they could help them to challenge the idea that Cameron has pitched too far left to appeal to a Tory base. But they must also considerably complicate their future argument.

For those who think the central problem is the "same old Tories" charge, it must be extremely worrying that David Cameron is increasingly seen as the same as the rest of his party. If the Tory 36% at the General Election provided stark evidence of the limits of Cameronism, these new findings suggest it may also be too late to significantly strengthen a Cameroon modernisation strategy now.

Where did Cameronism fail?

1. Cameron never decisively captured a centrist position

Firstly, if Cameron was trying to adopt a "heir to Blair" strategy, he failed to emulate Blair in never establishing a distinctively centrist public profile.

Blair took pride in coming out almost exactly where the median voter was on surveys using this methodology, which was usually a centimetre or two right of the dead centre line.

Cameron's early counter-intuitive gestures and photographs in his first 100 days did get him a hearing from voters, ready to assess the case that he was a different type of Conservative. Cameron did not use that hearing to clinch the argument substantively. He was consistently viewed by the public as less centrist than Gordon Brown. The assumption that Cameron had adopted a centrist position - by both political allies, and vocal opponents on the right - was another dimension of how almost everybody over-estimated Cameron's impact, and meant that the evidence that the public didn't think so was widely overlooked.

2. It wasn't possible to "rebalance" the public politics of Cameron's Conservativism without first defining Cameronism.

As leader of the opposition, David Cameron adopted a deliberately ambiguous strategy. Almost everything he said and did was capable as being read as a change strategy, or a Tory continuity strategy, rehabilitating traditional arguments for modern times, according to taste and inclination. This was, above all, true of the Big Society, which was used as proof the Tories had moved on from Thatcherism, while occasionally making the (true) point that Thatcher stood for much the same thing.

This central ambiguity was reflected in the "politics of and" strategy of "rebalancing" modernising and traditional messages - symbolised by the Steve Hilton/Andy Coulson duopoly. This was designed to bring together a broader coalition, at the price of evading some major decisions about message and strategy.

As Rachel Sylvester wrote last week in The Times (£):

In the view of rightwingers, the News of the World man brought balance to the Conservative operation, putting red-top grit into the “red Tory” oyster. But that grit also muddied the water. By persuading the Conservative leader to focus more on crime, immigration and Europe, Mr Coulson undermined the careful rebranding operation on which Mr Cameron had embarked. He kept traditionalists on side with ideas such as “prison ships”, he wooed the tabloids with policies on knife crime but he also frightened off swing voters — who are the key to electoral success — by playing the old Tory tunes.

The long-term strategy of shedding the “nasty party” image was compromised for the short-term tactical advantage of a few positive headlines ... It was no coincidence that Steve Hilton — Mr Cameron’s director of strategy, who had overseen a repositioning that included hugging everything from huskies to hoodies — became increasingly frustrated with Mr Coulson’s approach. Instead of trying to put meat on the bones of the Big Society concept that Mr Hilton had devised as a way of reconciling the smaller State with the iPod age, Mr Coulson threw red meat to the red tops.

Ultimately, this cost Cameronism any distinctive definition. But it is worth remembering that the decision not to choose between these twin track approaches was itself a defining political choice for 'ying and yang Cameronism'.

Cameron's central difficulty in the run-up to the 2010 election was that he could not shift the perception that the Tories, in a crisis, would stick up for the rich and powerful. This problem cost him sleep, but he couldn't answer it. Generic "we're in this together" rhetoric and Cameron's emphasis on his personal commitment to the NHS did not amount to a key substantive policy or argument that previous Tory leaders would not have made, and this became a greater difficulty as the Tories responded to the financial crisis with a strong emphasis on austerity.

3. In power, the more clearly defined Tory brand has toxified the weaker Cameron brand

In terms of the Cameroonian frame where the same old Tories are the problem and Cameron is the answer, and which believes the Tories must be decisively more centrist in response, the findings show that the Tory brand has had rather more success in "toxifying" both the Cameron and Clegg brands, rather than their doing anything much to "detoxify" the Tories.

The problem for a "let Cameron be Cameron" response is that this must depend on a much, much clearer message about what it is that Cameron stands for. It is surely quite a lot harder to do this substantively after five years than it would have been in opposition, especially as the result arises directly from Cameron's strategic choice to modernise in a way which accomodates his party much more often than he challenges it.

4. The Coalition hasn't helped much, because the public can't see that the Tories have sacrificed anything much to get it

It is also striking that the Tory-LibDem Coalition has not made Cameron nor the Conservatives appear more centrist. There was a Cameroonian belief in the May sunshine that the Coalition would confirm and deepen Cameronism as a moderating force, but whether or not it does so will depend on whether the government's agenda is seen as moderate or Tory-led.

For the public, he is much more about the tangible agenda of public spending cuts than the rather less tangible "big society". The public appear to doubt whether - on the central choices about the economy and public spending which have defined the government- the Coalition's choices are substantively different from those which a Tory government would have made. Because the LibDems chose not to negotiate on deficit strategy, but instead switched to the Tory position, it is difficult for them to challenge this perception by pointing to micro policy choices.

5. "Broadening" perceptions of the government's agenda beyond the cuts mightn't help either

That the government is increasingly understood by the public to be about one thing - spending cuts - to the exclusion of almost everything else is recognised as an important "communications challenge" by those at the centre.

The answer is to stress the range of other radical ideas that the government has. But it is worth noting this will make the problem worse for the Cameroons if these policies seem to confirm that the Tories haven't changed, instead of demonstrating that they have. Look at the major public controversies ahead and they have reasons to worry.

The sharp hike in university fees probably didn't help on that front, however necessary or fair government ministers think that it was.

The NHS reorganisation risks reopening fears about Tory motives on the future of the NHS, which David Cameron put so much energy into countering.

Welfare reform might prove broadly popular, but the public messaging has been much more about George Osborne going out of his way to pick a fight with the "undeserving poor" over housing benefit than any more compassionate conservative messages from IDS.

Those are probably the four big policy agendas that most people will hear about. But the issue arises across the range of policy. The schools policy has its advocates and its opponents, but. Selling off forests is uniting conservative and non-partisan opposition with those who argue it is more proof of a "same old Tories" ideology.

Where the Conservatives have done something counter-intuitive - their welcome support for the 0.7% development aid target, and commitments to the legally binding climate change targets - they are perhaps unfortunate that their shift of position means that the issues are no longer politically contested between the major parties, except from their own right flank. Meanwhile, the Tories will try to defeat their Coalition partners in May to nullify the forced concession of an electoral reform referendum (because the Tories haven't changed on that - and we don't yet have any Cameroonian outriders from the Boles/Gove camp for a Yes vote); and the new LibDem strategy is to vocally claim credit for any policy advances they do make, such as the control orders compromise and probably a Lords reform compromise in future.

Several advocates of the "big society" are clearly sincere when they argue that it can't simply be reduced to a cover story for spending cuts. That they make that point so often suggests that they recognise the scale of the challenge if people are to believe it. That will be much harder in 2011 than 2010, as spending cuts become tangible at the local level.

For those who think it matters that David Cameron was never about bringing the "same old Tories" back, the challenge is to think of a way to make the public share that view - and fast. Unless the Prime Minister knows how to do that, he may be asking too much if he expects a new director of communications to challenge and redefine the public impression of what his premiership has been about.

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