U.K. Conservatives Hope To Surmount Voters' Doubts

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Conservative Party leader David Cameron i

David Cameron's Conservative Party could gain a majority in Britain's upcoming general election, but the party still faces distrust from many voters. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Leon Neal/AFP/Getty
Conservative Party leader David Cameron

David Cameron's Conservative Party could gain a majority in Britain's upcoming general election, but the party still faces distrust from many voters.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty

David Cameron, the head of Britain's opposition Conservative Party, is trying to transform his party from one viewed by the electorate as "the Nasty Party" to one that is more electable in the general election expected within the next few months.

He has tried to do to his party, which has lost the past three general elections, what former British Prime Minister Tony Blair did when he moved the Labour Party from the left of British politics to the center.

Cameron made that clear the moment he became the new Tory leader.

"I said when I launched my campaign that we needed to change in order to win," he said. "Now that I have won, we will change to give to this country a modern, compassionate conservatism that is right for our times and right for our country."

Acceptance Of A Changing Britain

The playing out of that promise can be seen in a local government office in the leafy conservative stronghold of Tunbridge Wells, in the stockbroker belt south of London. Conservative council leader Roy Bullock, a friendly man with a handlebar mustache, looks traditionally conservative but doesn't sound so traditional.

"I think you have to accept that society has changed," Bullock said. "I've got a daughter who is a single parent. Just within my family there are differences of social change. But that doesn't mean all single parents are bad, that all gays are bad, etc., etc."

It may be safe to speculate that conservative council leaders with handlebar mustaches in Tunbridge Wells in decades past have not traditionally spoken quite so sympathetically about single mothers or black people or gays as Bullock now does.

"You can say, 'I don't understand why they are gay.' But they are, and therefore you accept it, and we have people in the party who are gay, who work very hard for us, and we accept them," he said. "That is part of the structure of humanity in this country. You can't just discard it and say, 'We are conservatives; we don't believe in that.' "

Questions About Cameron's Class

But however much the conservatives under Cameron modernize and move to the center, one thing always comes back to haunt the Tory leader: class. There are plenty of people who think Cameron — educated at Eton and Oxford — is simply too posh to represent them.

"They certainly still think of David Cameron as a toffee-nosed, conceited, silver-spoon-in-the-mouth man. Certainly," said Phil Atherton, 41, who sat at the bar of the working men's club in the northeastern town of Consett. "There is no more support for the Conservative Party than ever. The main thing to talk about is the marked antipathy or disillusionment with the Labour Party."

Support For Far-Right Party

Atherton says many people feel betrayed by Labour, which has not delivered the jobs it promised. But perhaps most worrying for Cameron is the threat from the right wing as he has moved to the center. The far-right British National Party opposes immigration, a popular stance among white working-class Britons such as Steven Douglas and David Smith.

"I would vote BNP, British National Party," Douglas said. "End of day it's England, so why not English people getting jobs because of foreigners?"

Smith agreed.

"Not Conservative, and I won't vote Labour, either. I probably would vote BNP. I do think they are a bit too extreme, but I think Labor and Conservative both need a shock."

Analysts still think Cameron and the new-look conservatives probably will just about gain a majority. But it won't be the landslide that Blair achieved in 1997, and clearly Cameron himself still has some work to do to fully transform the image of the Conservative Party.

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