Who gains from Tory losses?
James Heartfield explains why the old political pendulum has stopped
After two thorough drubbings in bye-elections at Newbury and Christchurch,
and having fallen into third place in the opinion polls, the Conservative
Party has less authority now than in the worst days of Margaret Thatcher.
For the Labour Party, with a clear lead at 44.5 per cent (Gallup, 5 August
1993) against the Liberal Democrats' 27 per cent and the Tories' 23 per
cent, it should mean success is around the corner.
Instead, Labour is on the rocks. While the Tories lost majorities in the
tens of thousands at Newbury and Christchurch, Labour polled so low it lost
its deposits. At Christchurch the anti-Maastricht protest candidate, eccentric
academic Alan Sked, got within shouting distance of Labour with 878 votes
to their 1453.
In electoral terms, Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats are the only party
taking advantage of the Tory disarray. Always stronger in a bye-election,
the Lib Dems are demolishing enough Tory majorities to look like a genuine
force in the south of England.
Mori's opinion poll gives the Lib Dems a clear majority in the south with
38 per cent over Labour's 31 per cent and the Tories' 30 per cent. Norman
Fowler's response to Christchurch was to promise to turn the Tories' fire
on the Lib Dems, to expose their secret socialist policies on the social
chapter, higher taxes and even an energy tax.
The possibility that the Lib Dems might become the de facto opposition
in the south of England is a real worry for Labour. In a recent pamphlet,
Southern Discomfort, Labour's Giles Radice made the point that the
party would have to appeal to the aspirations of C1 and C2 voters to stand
a chance in the old Tory heartlands.
Others hope that tactical voting will allow the opposition parties to concentrate
their fire on the government. Just as Labour voters in Newbury and Christchurch
switched to the Lib Dems as the best chance of beating the Tories, goes
the argument, so too will Lib Dem voters switch to Labour where it is in
But there is no likelihood that Lib Dem voters will ever switch to Labour
in the way that Labour voters have been prepared to vote for the Lib Dems.
Many working class voters find little to choose between the middle class
moralisers on John Smith's front bench and those on Paddy Ashdown's. For
the middle classes, by contrast, Labour is an unsupportable party for common
people and the poor.
Still less is Labour likely to appeal to anybody's aspirations, down south
or anywhere else. In the public imagination the party is irredeemably associated
with the depressed areas of the economy in Scotland and the north of England.
Labour's faltering attempts to introduce 'One member, one vote' only served
to remind everyone of its links with a defeated and dying trade union movement.
Labour cannot take advantage of the Tories' difficulties because the conventional
political see-saw is broken. No longer are Tory difficulties Labour opportunities.
The old cycle of politics is at an end, and Labour is a victim of that exhaustion
to an even greater extent than the Tories.
If anything, the Tories' difficulties are a consequence of their success
in defeating the Labour Party, rather than any success on Labour's part.
Throughout the eighties the campaign against traditional Labourism and trade
unionism gave Tory policy coherence.
Now that John Smith's party is not taken seriously as either a threat or
a promise, Tory attempts to frighten the middle classes with tales of a
government held hostage to the unions don't work. Unable to bash its traditional
punch bag, the Tory Party is at the mercy of a middle class alienated by
years of recession and high-handed leadership.
Characteristically, the political issues that have put the Tories on the
defensive of late are not issues raised by working class opposition, but
the concerns of a slighted middle class.
Fears about crime and resentment over taxes would once have been staple
fare in the Tory campaign against the left. These are the sort of issues
that translated the defence of capitalism into middle class fears about
private property. Labour could easily be painted as the party that was soft
on the criminals out of a misguided social conscience, and too eager to
pay for its reforms by taxing the hard-working middle classes.
Today it is the Tories who are embarrassed by the crime figures, and the
Tories who are suffering because of proposals to put 17.5 per cent VAT on
fuel bills. Forget that Christchurch has one of the lowest crime rates in
the country: the Tories are paying the price of middle class insecurity,
however it is expressed.
Explaining away Labour's collapse at Newbury, Labour MP Peter Mandelson
said that 'we shook the tree but the apples fell into somebody else's lap'.
Of Christchurch, Labour frontbencher Jack Straw could only insist that 'we
set the agenda from the first day of the campaign by marking out the issue
of VAT on fuel'.
In truth Labour neither shook the tree nor set the agenda. The Tories are
suffering because, like the Labour Party, their policies are tailored for
a political era that has passed. It is the insecure middle classes that
are influencing an agenda which reflects their concerns at a time when the
working class has lost its political voice and the ruling party has lost
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993