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Who gains from Tory losses?

James Heartfield explains why the old political pendulum has stopped swinging

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.

Lib-Lab pact?

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 second place.

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.

Jurassic parties

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 its way.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993

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