Tory contenders inherit old image problem

Holding their conferences in working-class Blackpool has done little to change the Tories’ image, it seems. They are still seen as Volvo- owning, bulldog-breeding folk who live in farmhouses.

These are the findings of an extensive survey commissioned by the Bow Group for a fringe meeting I attended in the seaside town. They show that the Tories' biggest problem is their brand – they are still perceived as 'the nasty party'.

Despite what Michael Howard, IDS and William Hague said about changing and winning the middle ground, they all lurched to the right in the end, and lost. Effective targeting did win a few more seats, but based on the Tory gains in May it would be 2025 before they got back into government.

The Conservatives' strategy needs to change, and if they don't believe me they should look at some of the facts. According to the Bow poll they were the third most popular party among 18 to 35-year-olds; their historic lead among ABC1s has gone; and they have no MPs in places such as Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow. Even a higher turnout wouldn't help. Almost half of non-voters said they would have ticked the Labour box in May, with only 21 per cent plumping for the Tories.

Most voters gravitate toward the political centre. Tony Blair is seen as being just four points to the right, but Howard is 52 points in the same direction. Yet significantly Gordon Brown is apparently 22 points to the left – and since it will be the Chancellor and not Blair they face at the next election, the Conservatives have a chance to even things up. It's no wonder then that all the leadership candidates, with the exception of Fox, were talking about change and winning the middle ground. 

You couldn't move around Blackpool without one of the candidates' supporters thrusting a leaflet or even a trendy wristband in your hand. The excitement was tangible. Even the editor of The Sun braved the fish 'n' chips and 'kiss me quick' hats. She was not disappointed. On the first day delegates clapped a succession of speakers, telling them they were a bunch of right-wing reactionaries and unless they changed the Tories were doomed. The question is: are those who will decide the party's future listening?

Whoever wins the leadership fight (and polls from The Spectator and The Guardian put Cameron on top), the contest will have done a service to the art of political communications. Seeing candidates deliver speeches without notes or an autocue has been a revelation.
For once the Tories have shown Labour something new.

charlie.whelan@haynet.com

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