Britain’s party conference season has finished and now an army of commentators is picking over the entrails of the spin, the pollsters are cranking up their next surveys and the voters are waiting to have their say when the general election is called.
The Liberal Democrats at Bournemouth failed to establish themselves as a serious “third force”; Labour converged on Brighton to trot out the mantra of “securing our economic recovery”; the Tories went to Manchester, home of “the dark Satanic mills” and huge Labour majorities, to capture everyone’s attention with the most extraordinary political makeover.
Tory leader David Cameron, an old Etonian and former public relations executive of immense wealth, declared that the Conservatives were now the party to alleviate poverty and that his government would “fix our broken society”.
You had to adjust the colour on your TV set to handle the hard sell. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was draped in blue and Cameron was swathed in red. It was one of the most impressive cross-dressing performances seen since Danny La Rue took London’s Palladium by storm in the 1980s.
Brown spoke doggedly of spending cuts to ameliorate Britain’s gobsmacking deficit while Cameron and his shadow chancellor George Osborne tried a bolder strategy, telling voters that their cuts would be deeper than Labour’s, taxes would go up and so would the age of pensionable retirement for men and women.
So now it’s down to a choice between Labour’s spending cuts or the Tories’ spending cuts — both of which will drive up unemployment. Not much of an election pitch there, but one that plays on the national characteristic of being miserable and losers.
The first post-conferences poll in the Daily Mail made sobering news for Labour. It showed the Conservatives on 42%, Labour 28%, LibDems 18% and “Other” 11%.
After more than 10 years of building financial management as the key to its electoral success, Labour would have been stung by results of two questions about the economy.
Which part is the most honest about the UK’s financial crisis?
Conservatives 37%, Labour 16%, LibDems 10%, Don’t knows 37%.
Which party has the best proposals for sorting out the British economy?
Conservatives 35%, Labour 21%, LibDems 9%, the rest “Don’t knows”.
Perhaps worst of all for Labour is the result showing that the Tories are now more trusted than New Labour to look after public services such as health and education.
What’s wrong with these people? Have they already forgotten Margaret Thatcher, elected 1979, and the savagery unleashed on every public institution from the NHS, to the universities to the Arts Council?
But while the Tories have been buoyed by the post-conference surveys — YouGov gave them a thumping 17% lead — not everyone has been sold on the inevitability of a Cameron landslide. One point that is often overlooked is that Cameron’s formidable lead isn’t as large as the one enjoyed by Tony Blair when he took on Prime Minister John Major in 1997.
In the Mail survey were other anxious results for the Tories. For example, when asked “Are the Conservatives a party of privilege concerned mainly with the interests of the rich and wealthy?”, 51% said it was a “fair criticism” and only 39% said it was an “unfair criticism”.
And when asked if the Conservatives understand the problems of ordinary people, 40% said they do understand but 51% said they don’t understand.
Commenting on the results, Anthony King, Professor of Government at Essex University, said: “Taken as a whole, the (Mail’s) findings reinforce the Tories’ own sense that they have a long climb ahead.”
While the Tories are seizing the high moral ground with promises to help the poor and save the National Health Service (NHS), Labour is looking clapped out and sounding like a party in opposition rather than government.
Brown’s backroom strategists are suggesting that New Labour reinvent itself as “new” New Labour, bury Blairism and fight a class warfare campaign against Cameron’s party of toffs.
This would merely give the Cameronians the middle ground they so desperately need to capture power. What they do after that is strikingly obvious — they’ll revert to being Tories.