Location, location – and crunching the numbers for the parties
Conservative grassroots, though fewer in number, are flexing muscles
Senior Tory MP Tim Yeo: his South Suffolk constituency organisation refused to re-adopt him as their election candidate.
Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s great philosophical muse, with pride, but not boastfully, once declared that he had always honoured the promise he had made when first elected in Leeds that he would visit his constituents once a month.
During a 23-year career in the Commons, before his ele- vation to the House of Lords, Joseph – one of the most significant if lesser-known figures of British politics since the second World War – apparently kept to his word. Today, he would find it harder.
Conservative Party constituency associations – which have the power to select or fire a candidate – are becoming more demanding, a trait fuelled, perhaps, by their declining size and the loss of grandeur suffered by MPs since the expenses scandal.
On Monday, the Conservatives’ South Suffolk constituency organisation voted not to adopt former minister Tim Yeo, in the Commons since 1983, to run for the party in 2015. Yorkshire MP Anne McIntosh went days before.
Like many British MPs, Yeo never lived in the constituency; instead, his home is in Kent. Locally, people complained that he, too, was often “the absentee landlord”, unwilling to turn up for even core consti- tuency association occasions, such as fundraisers.
Yeo had first been rejected by the local party executive, but he sought a full vote of the 600-strong association’s membership. They should overrule the order, he told them, because now was a time for “experienced men”.
Long interested in environmental issues, Yeo featured in a Panorama documentary last year where he was seen offering to coach a witness before the latter would come before the Commons Climate Change committee he chaired.
In the furore afterwards, Yeo referred himself for investigation by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, although he was cleared in a report published late last year, but it poisoned the view of some people towards him.
Yeo’s principal difficulty, however, was location.
He is surrounded by a number of Conservative MPs elected in 2010 – a year that will be seen in time to mark a significant turning
point in British politics. Led by people such as South Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock, the new breed are exceptionally active in the constituency, in a way that makes older members of the Commons muse morosely that life is no longer as it once was.
Some of the frenetic activity represents a changing of the generations. The younger people see politics as a chapter in their lives, not its whole. Politics must offer a career, advancement, rank if their interest is to be permanently maintained.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the British voting system is blatantly unfair. Easy victories in north of England constituencies where few bother to vote, for instance, was worth a 21-seat bonus to Labour then.
In all the battles of the last four years between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the most important and the one that may well decide the 2015 election was the refusal of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to accept boundary changes. David Cameron had wanted to cut the number of MPs but, more importantly, he wanted to make constituencies more equal in size.
The last two general elec- tion results prove that something is unfair. In 2005, Lab- our led by three points over the Conservatives. The num- bers gave Tony Blair a third majority, this time of 60 seats.
In 2010 the Conservatives had a seven-point lead over Labour in the latter’s worst election performance since the days of Michael Foot and yet, the Conservatives did not have an overall majority, leaving them dependent on the unwelcome, frigid embrace of the Liberal Democrats.
This time, everything is com- plicated by the UK Independence Party. Ukip is expected to lead the polls in the European elections, but Conservative and Labour point to its lack of organisation and visibility.
Labour and the Conservatives are working on so-called “40-seat” strategies. The Conservatives have identified their 40 most at risk and are putting resources and prospective parliamentary candidates in the 40 seats where Labour is most vulnerable.
Pollster Peter Kellner says Labour must take 60 seats from the Conservatives if it is to win, but it cannot just depend on core Labour voters. It must also keep the large numbers of stragglers who have migrated to Labour from the Lib Dems since 2010.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls and his election strategists – seen by some in Labour as being too concerned about the core vote rather than appeal believe the election could be decided by just one million key voters strategically around Britain, mostly in England.
In the Commons, the parliament is already dying. Legislation is thin on the ground. The elements that do come forth have to be rushed through in a bid to keep the Conservatives together or keep the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on the same pitch. It will be a long road to May 2015.