Well, there’s no getting away from it, Henley was a disappointing result for the Lib Dems. Not as bad as for Labour and UKIP certainly but still poor. I don’t honestly think anything done differently would have made a big difference. When I went to Henley, I found a well-run HQ, plenty of activists and delivery/canvassing well under control. Yes, you can always use a few more people and perhaps choosing a more local candidate might have helped a little but not over 10,000 votes.
Henley merely underlines what Crewe & Nantwich suggested a few weeks ago – the mood, zeitgeist, call it what you like, is running strongly against Labour. The corollary of that is voters are aligning to the most likely alternative Government, the Conservatives. The anger against Gordon Brown and Labour is real and palpable but there is a far stronger undercurrent driving this and this was apparent while canvassing in Henley and that is a strong sense of fear.
Now, we’ve had fear on the doorsteps before – fear of crime, fear of immigration and that was real in its own way but much more limited. The new fear, which has swept crime, immigration and Europe right off the radar, is economic insecurity. People are far more fearful concerning their individual economic prospects than has been the case arguably for a generation and for people, who have never known economic hard times, the sense of the unknown exacerbates the anxiety.
For many (indeed, I would say, most) people, their property is their sole significant asset, their job their sole means of earning income, their car is their sole viable form of mobility and shopping their only way of feeding and clothing themselves. In a time of low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment and a housing market running well above inflation, people were content. Indeed, this period of economic prosperity lasted so long it came to be seen as the normal state of affairs.
Another consequence of this prolonged period of economic stability was that people became secure in their wealth. By this I mean there was a group of people who, content with their own economic situation, were well disposed to see the Government helping those less fortunate. This led to support for increased public spending and was, I believe, a strong factor behind the Labour successes in the south in both 1997 and 2001.
All that is now gone.
In its place we have soaring fuel prices stoking higher inflation and a falling housing market balanced by the threat of higher interest rates. The speed and ferocity of this volte face in economic fortunes has been staggering and naturally people have been looking for someone to blame. It may well be that either Tony Blair saw what was coming or had the sheer good fortune to leave when he did for he has handed Gordon Brown the most poisoned of chalices. To compound matters, Brown has drunk the poison and seemingly enjoyed it. Poor analogy but Brown has played a disastrous hand in the past year leaving both himself and his Party at levels of unpopularity rarely seen in British political history.
Let me share with you a canvassing anecdote from Henley. I was out in a very nice road of four and five-bedroom detached houses. Every house had been Tory. I saw a young couple in their front garden (this was early in the evening) and did the usual spiel about asking for their support. The man replied they would both be voting Conservative. Unusually, and probably out of frustration, I asked him why.
The woman looked up from her weeding and said “I want the Tories back so everything can return to normal”.
I’m rarely floored by what people tell me but that stopped me dead in my tracks. However, I think this is indicative of a strong belief out there that somehow life and economic stability will return with David Cameron in 10 Downing Street.
The thing is, it won’t.
Most people have still to cotton on to the new economic reality. The days of cheap oil, cheap food and cheap credit are over. It doesn’t matter who is in Downing Street, the economic future of this country is looking far from bright. When the Henley by-election result is pushed down the news agenda by the fact that Brent crude moved above $141 a barrel, you get a sense of what is really going on.
None of this will matter to Conservative activists and bloggers. Their tails are up – Labour and the Lib Dems are on the retreat and everything is fine. It’s more than likely now that David Cameron will be the next Prime Minister with a large majority, possibly even a landslide as the fearful seek whatever hope they can from the MP for Witney. Once, however, the truth dawns that we face not months, but years of economic hardship and that there may be very little any British Government can do, the euphoria might crack a little and the fearful may finally realise it’s time to be really worried.