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Tories grasp at popularity
Tory leader David Cameron must have been looking forward to his party's annual conference. Polls were predicting a New Labour wipe-out at the next general election, and the Labour Party was very publicly split over Gordon Brown's leadership. The Tory conference promised a chance to establish Cameron as the prime minister-in-waiting.
But the historic crisis in the economy got in the way. The Tory conference receded into the shadows. Gone was any hint of celebration; champagne was banned, jokes were reined in. Only London mayor Boris Johnson messed up the sobriety when he likened himself to the governor of California by saying he had "terminated" Ken Livingstone. The conference almost did not take place at all, as Cameron considered postponing it when the US congress failed to agree President Bush's initial bailout package.
The Tories have persisted in blaming the economic catastrophe on Brown's mismanagement and alleged wild public spending. It is true, of course, that Brown has been a champion of deregulation in the money markets, which has helped to create the out-of-control bubbles and bloated lifestyles of the 'masters of the universe'. But that deregulation was a continuation of Tory policies. And now, both Tories and New Labour argue for tighter regulation and for a limit on extortionate salaries and bonuses.
Shadow chancellor George Osborne proposes setting up a new "independent" Office for Budget Responsibility, to "stand in judgement over us, hold us to our promises" (London Evening Standard 29.9.08). Rather than democratic structures to call governments to account, this would be representatives of big business trying to do the job.
The Tories have echoed those US Republicans who, feeling the pressure of working class protest, argued that "Joe six-pack should not have to bail out the fat cats". George Osborne asked why the taxpayer should have to bail out bankers who have been greedy and made bad decisions.
But this is just an opportunist grasp at popularity. The Tories advocate takeovers by the Bank of England rather than the government, which is just a sleight of hand - it is still the taxpayer who would ultimately foot the bill. And the Tories make no bones about that - Cameron promised big public spending cuts and possible tax rises.
Despite their words, the Tories, if in government, could be pushed, as pro-market George Bush has done in the US, to bail out or nationalise some banks. Of course this would not be nationalisation in our interests, but in order to sustain financial capitalism and let the "greedy pigs" off the hook.
Boris Johnson let the cat out of the bag on the Tories' support for the rich when he declared: "Three cheers for the bankers!" in the Telegraph. They are currently headhunting the biggest Thatcherites in the New Labour cabinet - academy tsar Lord Adonis and Work and Pensions secretary James Purnell.
Cameron's mission has been to present the Tories as changed from their hated "nasty party" reputation to being modern, green and compassionate, on the side of the hard-working person on the street. Nonetheless the social policies they promote are based on traditional obsessions. The solutions proposed for Cameron's "broken Britain" include tougher punishments for criminals and tax breaks for married couples.
Sickening, is the return of the old Tory favourite, also adopted by Tony Blair: their call to end the "something for nothing culture". This is breathtaking hypocrisy at a time when the real grasping cheats are the rich bankers currently walking away with billions of ordinary working people's money!
During their conference, as stock markets plunged throughout the world, Tory criticism of Brown's policies became more muted and Cameron instead offered 'support' to the government.
To be seen to gloat or criticise too much can backfire. And Cameron has undoubtedly been stung by Brown's attack that this is no time for a novice (also a jibe at Milliband, the main leadership contender within New Labour).
Brown has received a small boost during the financial crisis; Labour gained three points in the polls, going up to 32%, while the Tories went down three points to 41% (ICM 25.9.08). This Tory nine point lead is less than half their lead in August, but it would still be enough to give them a comfortable majority in a general election.
Most people trust none of the main parties. 52% are not confident that Brown can steer Britain through the crisis, yet 47% would rather Brown stayed in power against 40% who would prefer a new leader. The main parties are only surviving this crisis so far because of the lack of a party that stands up for working-class interests.
In The Socialist 8 October 2008:
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