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Tory party fears an autumn election
The Tories were beaten 10-0 on the eve of their conference in a football match with the press! It may feel a bit like that for them on the political field too. "Clearly we face a huge challenge," Tory leader David Cameron confessed. Clearly. Pre-conference polls must have caused delegates to choke on their cornflakes. An Observer poll put New Labour seven points ahead, the Times had them on a ten-point lead, the Telegraph on eleven.
Worse were the leadership ratings. In the Observer poll, 60% saw Gordon Brown as best able to handle a crisis, and only 13% Cameron. Brown even led among Tory voters – with 37%, compared with 32% for Cameron. Significantly, despite the banking crisis, on the economy, for decades perceived as the Tories' strength, Labour leads by a massive 29%.
Cameron told conference delegates that they were going to mount the "great Conservative fightback". Asked if he was ready for an election, he declared, "You bet". In fact they are far from confident.
For the last two years Cameron has been trying to 'modernise' the Tories, taking up issues such as the environment and social justice. They face the unprecedented problem that the Labour Party, which once at least partially represented the interests of working-class people, has transformed into New Labour, an out-and-out big business party. Meanwhile the Tories are still electorally plagued by hatred of their 18 years of rule up to 1997.
For months, Cameron's gloss has worn thin, as top Tories have openly accused him of a lack of substance and traditionalists have argued for a return to more right-wing territory. Previous, rather more hapless, leaders have attempted to shed the 'nasty party' image, only to panic about losing their traditional support and lurch rightward just before an election.
Gordon Brown taunted Cameron by having the dreaded ex-Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher to tea. Reeling from this provocation (to the Tories but also to working-class Labour voters), suddenly the Tories wanted to claim her back. William Hague cried: "We, Gordon, backed her when she rescued the country in the face of every denunciation from the likes of you. So you may fawn now at the feet of our greatest prime minister, but you are no Margaret Thatcher."
The traditional Tory territory of taxation has been placed at the heart of conference policy, with a series of populist measures designed to win back 'middle-England' voters from Labour. One of two headline-grabbers was a reduction in inheritance tax, setting a threshold of £1,000,000 before it has to be paid – "the death of the death tax". The other was a proposal to abolish stamp duty for first-time house purchases up to £250,000, meaning that nine out of ten would not pay.
There would be tax breaks for married couples, but also co-habitation is encouraged above single parenthood by increasing working tax credit for couples. In a blatant attempt at popularity and a stab at New Labour they say these measures will be paid for by taxing super-rich foreigners who live in the UK but do not pay tax, something that New Labour has refused to do.
With the rise in property prices putting many people – especially from the middle class – over the present inheritance tax threshold, the Tories' proposal to raise the threshold may have an effect in denting Labour's lead. It shows up New Labour as penalising the middle class with this particular tax proportionately more than the super-rich, which is far from popular among middle class voters.
Hidden beneath the above headlines is a proposal to further clamp down on benefits for the poorest in society, particularly incapacity benefits and to increase the penalties for refusing work. Green taxes, such as an airline pollution duty and extra tax on gas-guzzling cars – much watered down from previous aspirations – will also penalise the less well-off. The gap between rich and poor will increase further if taxes on wealth are reduced and replaced by indirect taxes on air travel and consumption.
The Tories' big fear is disaster in an early general election. Many leading figures in New Labour want a 1 November election. Fearing a recession and a 'winter of discontent', they want to capitalise on Brown's present lead. But while Labour are ahead in the polls, in marginal seats it is a lot closer. And a layer of people may not vote in November; the Association of Electoral Administrators says a November election would disenfranchise more than a million people because of the cold and dark.
Such is the volatility in Britain, Brown fears going down in history as one of the shortest-lived prime ministers. Even if he doesn't lose the election, there could be a drop in Labour's majority, or even a hung parliament.
To rattle Labour, the Tories claim to be ready. They have a war chest of £10 million and Lord Ashcroft, Tory millionaire, has put up £25-30,000 for campaigning in key marginals. Recent council by-election results may give them some cheer, with a gain in Sunderland, and favourable swings in Corby and Portsmouth.
But they know they face a hard task. If they lose the next election, Cameron would be out. There is already talk about who his successor would be. Even his friend George Osborne has tried to distance himself from the 'uber-modernisers'. But who do they put in his place? Some even want to bring back the much-mocked William Hague. As suggested previously in the socialist, it is even possible that a fracture of the Tories could be posed, with 'modernisers' moving to work more closely with New Labour, and a traditionalist rump forming a new right-wing party.
Cameron claims to be "setting out an absolutely clear and compelling alternative" but in reality all the main parties are dancing on the head of a pin. One Tory aide said: "It's all very well for Brown to go after trying to peel off 4% of people in the middle of the dividing line, but what about the 40% of people who don't vote?" What indeed. The biggest section of the electorate will probably once again be those who don't vote because they feel they have no party to vote for.
The three main parties agree on privatisation, cuts, and driving down public-sector pay and pensions; and no matter what they say about poverty, they all represent the system which has seen a massive sucking up of wealth in recent years to the tops of society, while the rest of us struggle to get by.
That is why we campaign for a new party to represent the interests of working-class people. And that is why, in the general election, the Socialist Party will be standing candidates to offer a Socialist Alternative.
In The Socialist 4 October 2007:
War and terrorism
Editorial and comment
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party features
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party events
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party reviews and comment
Socialist Party workplace news