Tory pre-election blues

THE TORY Party is in disarray. The party’s right-wing racist policies are showing up leader William Hague as a desperate politician who’ll plumb any depths to win votes – but very unsuccessfully! A month before a general election is probably due, some opinion polls predict that the Tories could face their worst showing since 1832. ROBIN CLAPP takes a look at:

Tory pre-election blues

WHEN YOUR election advertising agency admits that the public have an “ingrained distrust” of your policies and your former deputy prime minister confesses to having had doubts about whether he could vote for you, things must be pretty bad.

That’s the position Hague and the Tories find themselves in. Michael Heseltine later tried to downplay his momentary crisis of faith, but wherever you look Tory voters and MPs fear a wipe-out at the polls.

Expecting defeat, Widdecombe, Portillo and others are sharpening their knives for what will probably be a very messy battle for succession.

Hague’s obituaries are already being rehearsed. Former Tory London mayoral candidate Steve Norris says he feels “increasingly detached” from the “rather unpleasant core of the party”.

Even disgraced Tory peer Lord Archer pitched in, responding to Hague’s flirtation with racism by witheringly describing the Tory party as one which “would give Blacks and Asians a pat on the head but not invite them into their homes”.

This is all a far cry from the optimism at the time of Hague’s accession. The uncaring, sleaze-laden years of Thatcher and Major were to be replaced by a Tory commitment to embrace the ‘centre ground’ of politics.

Image-makers despatched Hague, complete with baseball cap, to the Notting Hill carnival where he talked soothingly of “compassion” and “inclusivity”, while looking forward to the day when the his party might have a Black leader.

In similar vein, Shadow Foreign Secretary Francis Maude suggested that one day the Tories might even have a gay leader.

Four years on the picture is very different. Despite widespread disappointment with Blair’s pro-market policies, opinion polls stubbornly refuse to turn in the Tories’ favour.

They are still hated by millions of workers and seen almost as a species of war criminal. Their attempt to repackage themselves has bombed, leading them to embark sharply to the right – they are trying to recapture the two million lifelong Tories who stayed at home in 1997.

Hague’s speech to the Harrogate spring conference articulated this desperate strategy of attacking all things foreign, bashing the EU and warning in thinly veiled tones of the social dangers of accepting a further influx of asylum seekers.

Raking the embers of xenophobia, Hague conjured up the vision of Britain under a second-term Blair government: “Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land… the royal mint melting down pound coins… our currency and our ability to set our own interest rates gone forever. The Chancellor returning from Brussels carrying instructions to raise taxes still further…”

According to Hague, a Labour victory would remove the need for further elections, because Blair would allow Brussels to take over Britain.

Turning to asylum seekers he pledged to lock them all up: “We will assess the validity of asylum seekers within weeks, not years. And, where applications are unfounded, immediate deportation will follow.” After this speech, race hate crimes increased threefold in March.

Pandering to prejudice

HAGUE’S SPEECH summed up the Tories’ new position after New Labour stole their traditional policies on law and order, taxation and privatisation. Hague chooses to play on the fears of sections of the middle class by painting a picture of little England struggling to retain its sovereignty from rapacious Brussels and hordes of social security-grabbing foreigners.

Hague’s pandering to prejudice knows no boundaries. Rejecting their new-found tolerance with indecent haste, he opted to demonise homosexuality in debates over Section 28.

After initially accepting the Macpherson report that investigated the Metropolitan Police’s behaviour following Stephen Lawrence’s murder, they later denounced it as a further example of the “power of the liberal elite.”

Even the tragic killing of Damiola Taylor was used opportunistically by Hague, who waded in again around the issue of New Labour’s alleged softness towards crime and – implicitly – race.

Now he has allowed Tory backbencher John Townend to play the race card blatantly and only stopped when black Tory peer Lord Taylor of Warwick threatened to defect to New Labour.

This lurch rightwards will not save the Tories. It is designed to consolidate their hard core vote and minimise the expected election defeat. They pin their hopes on 2.5 million middle-income swing voters, the so-called “pebbledash” voters.

But their recovery in the urban areas, especially London, is non-existent. Many of these target voters remain repelled by them, a fact picked up by most ‘Fleet Street’ papers including the Sun which now calls for a Labour vote.

No party has come from so far behind in the polls so near an election and won. If Labour is to lose 90 seats and thereby its overall majority, the Tories require a 7.3% swing. A Mori poll in April put Labour 18 points ahead.

Polls also show that more Tory supporters are dissatisfied with Hague than satisfied. A Guardian/ICM poll showed that only 49% of even Tory voters thought Hague was the best future prime minister for Britain.

With an average age of over 60, their depleted ranks are thoroughly demoralised. More than 75% of them expect defeat and over one-third believe Hague should go now. From having 12,000 councillors in 1979, they have just over 6,000 today.

Following defeat, the Tory men in suits will come calling on Hague and his resignation as leader is probable. Michael Portillo, the former darling of the right, has begun to reposition himself as the ‘moderate’ ‘one-nation’ candidate for a subsequent contest!

Portillo resigned from the Thatcherite caucus ‘No Turning Back’ group in December and has begun wooing the Tory One Nation group, under an umbrella around “Mainstream”.

The right’s candidates will include Ann Widdecombe, famed for her attacks on New Labour’s supposed weakness on crime. Yet even former Tory Chancellor Ken Clarke has complained that Labour’s Jack Straw would be too extreme for a Tory cabinet.

Economic plans

THE SPENDING plans announced by New Labour and the Tory Party are almost identical. Shadow Chancellor Portillo has promised that a Tory government will match Gordon Brown’s spending on health, education, defence, policing and transport.

This isn’t such a bold claim. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, spending under New Labour has so far increased at a lower rate than under the last Tory government.

As the Economist sarcastically commented: “These tiny differences in spending are hardly proxies for titanic ideological differences.”

Like Gordon Brown, Portillo mistakenly believes recession will pass Britain by and that the economy will continue to grow at 2.5% a year over the period 2001-2004.

Overall the Tories plan to increase public expenditure by £8 billion less than Labour in this period and they claim that even by doing this they can match Labour’s key spending pledges by tightening up on social security fraud, reducing government bureaucracy and reforming housing benefits.

Selling off Channel Four and the endowing of universities so they are no longer funded by the state would raise more money.

Having originally denounced the Children’s Tax Credit, Portillo has embraced it and pledged an extra £200 a year for parents of children under the age of five. These measures and the usual headline-grabbing tax cuts are seen as policy pluses, in an area where in truth you can hardly distinguish a difference between the parties.

Mirror image

THE TORY party faces practically a mirror image, a virtually identical establishment capitalist party, in New Labour. The Tories can attract little support at present but New Labour apes their policies, even outdoing the Tories on viciousness to asylum seekers.

With a world recession approaching fast, disillusion with Labour will grow even faster. The Tories could in future turn to more and more blatant anti-EU xenophobia and to scapegoating black and Asian workers for lost jobs and lowered living standards.

If there is no mass socialist alternative pointing out the real culprits – the capitalist system – their poisonous arguments could win support amongst sections of society. The Socialist Party is fighting for that socialist alternative – join us.

Hague’s rage against Europe

THE TORIES see no contradiction between denouncing the loss of sovereignty to the European Union (EU) and eagerly embracing US President George W Bush’s latest military plan, which would involve upgrading American bases in Yorkshire as part of a renewed Star Wars project.

The Tory Daily Telegraph even raises the prospect of Britain leaving the EU and joining NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Alliance. While Europhile Tory MPs like Heseltine and Clarke reject this as the rankings of madmen, the Hague leadership has gone further than even Thatcher in challenging Britain’s membership of the EU.

The foot and mouth epidemic stopped Hague from taking his “Save the Pound” soapbox into the countryside, but the Tory leadership now pledges to renegotiate Britain’s entire relationship with Brussels at June’s European summit in Gothenburg.

They demagogically claim they will close off the “one-way street towards a European superstate” by renegotiating the CAP, the Common Fisheries Policy and last December’s Nice treaty.

Once again playing the xenophobic card, they say they will introduce legislation ensuring that the European Court of Justice cannot override the will of the British parliament.