A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Tories are still for elitists, by elitists

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This is the conclusion of the National Equality Panel whose report, published today, highlights the "deep-seated and systemic differences" that exist in Britain. According to yesterday's Guardian poll the Tories are losing the "battle" over class. Apparently over a third of voters see the Conservatives as the party of the upper classes. So what. Does class matter any more? Can it really influence the way people vote? The simple answer to both questions is yes. Whether we like it or not, class still matters in this country and could well influence the outcome of the forthcoming election. Back in 2008 Labour's shambolic "Tory toff" campaign prompted a plethora of articles and comment about whether class was still a major issue in British politics. The truth is that Britain remains a nation that is still dominated by class division. In 2007 in an ICM poll ICM poll for the Guardian, 89% of those surveyed thought that people are still judged by their class – with almost half saying that it still counts for "a lot". Over 50% of people said that class, not ability, greatly affects the way they are seen. Despite more than a decade of Labour in power, social mobility in Britain has decreased; in fact the British middle classes are operating what is, in effect, a closed shop. For example our top universities are still, in the main, the preserve of a rich, well-connected elite.

You may well remember the furore a few years ago when Bristol University was accused of gross discrimination and unfairness — spurred on by several influential columnists and leader writers — for introducing a "fairer" criterion for admissions that would benefit pupils from poorer backgrounds. Often the real reasons why many left-leaning journalists and politicians end up sending their sons and daughters to fee-paying schools are based not on the raw results of the local state schools, but on a desire to ensure that their children have access to what the local comprehensive cannot provide: privilege, advantage and the opportunity to network. British public schools have always been a production line of the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, can raise their fees steadily, select their pupils, enjoy a growing endowment income from their benefactors, and offer some of the most impressive sporting and extracurricular activities in the country. What's more, they now recruit from a middle class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage: parents who become part of the problem, rather than seek to be part of the solution. I often hear some of my friends and "comrades" attempting to ease their consciences by announcing that the local comprehensive is simply not good enough and they have to go private in the name of parental responsibility.

Sometimes I cannot help but feel that the perpetuation of class divisions in Britain really is part of a liberal conspiracy. It seems clear to me that those who do have influence in our society have such a high stake in the current order that they will seek to mobilise and organise in order to protect it. It must surely be true, for example, that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs. Suspicion of the wealthy, the privileged and of the upper classes is hardwired into the DNA of those who espouse left-leaning ideas and policies. Why? Because most believe that the inevitable consequence of a politics that espouses equity and fairness is that it will give comfort to the afflicted and end up afflicting the comfortable. For example the majority of ordinary people watch in disbelief when bankers attempt to paint themselves as noble and public spirited by limiting their annual bonus to "only" a million pounds. What people want, demand almost, is that the super-rich should pay more, and that those that got us into this mess should shoulder the responsibility for getting us out of it. The subtext behind the polling is that many people associate class with wealth and see the Tories as the party of the rich, the party that will help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

In the coming months Labour will seek to portray the Tories as the party of the elite, a party that is out of touch with High Street Britain, out of touch with the needs and aspirations of hard-working families on low or moderate incomes. Sadly exactly the same charge can be laid at 'new' labour which is why so many

of us just don't know who the hell to vote for given such a shockingly poor choice of politicians & parties.
The Tories, committed as they are to deep cuts in public spending, would, if elected, increase the gap between rich and poor even further. If Labour is to achieve a fourth term then its best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done, not in defending the status quo but rather in campaigning against the ugly realities of health and education inequalities and showing why these warrant further state action. Even teachers are losing faith in Labour with only a quarter planning to vote for the party compared to more than two-fifths nine years ago, a poll revealed today. Traditionally core Labour voters, teachers are twice as likely to vote Tory now compared to five years ago, the survey by Ipsos MORI shows. One thousand teachers from England and Wales were questioned for the poll.

One thousand teachers from England and Wales were questioned for the poll. Teachers aged under 35 are less likely to vote Labour and more likely to vote Conservative than their older colleagues. Some 22% plan to put a cross by Labour, while 21% would put one by the Tories. Just over a quarter – 26% – of those over 35 intend to vote Labour compared to 16% who plan to vote for the Conservatives. A quarter of the teachers in the poll expect to vote Labour, but 18% intend to vote for the Tories. In 2005, just 9% pledged allegiance to the Conservatives. But despite all this I have a sneaky feeling even that cannot wipe clen the memory of disadvamntage, poverty and disillusion with the last Tory government, under John Major who took over Thatcher the snatcher's iron reign of power. Don't laugh, but it's possible that the Tories won't win the next general election. Sounds silly, I know, given that the polls, the press, why, the very scent in the air, insists that David Cameron is – in the words of one Guardian front page – the "PM in waiting". Wherever he travels now, Cameron leaves audiences concluding that he looks the part: he has the manner, the confidence, that glow of imminent power.

Even Labour ministers have succumbed to this sense of inevitability. Refer in private conversation to the Tories as the "next government", and they don't even blink in protest. But they might all be wrong. It's still possible that even if Labour doesn't win in 2010, the Tories could lose, denied an outright victory: those expenses-fiddling MPs might escape a hanging from the voters, but still parliament could be hung. I'm not saying it's likely, nor even probable. If you've got £10 to hand over to a bookmaker, find something else to bet on. But it is definitely possible. Take a look at last year's Guardian poll for example - The headline figures showed Cameron outstripping Gordon Brown on every measure of alpha male leadership: tougher and more decisive. But underneath was the news that the gap between Labour and Conservative is shrinking. Some pollsters have it at 10 points, which they declare "the bare minimum for a functional majority". If that lead melts into single digits, as it could under the hot lights of an election, then the Tories will be in peril. But that's just the beginning. Those at Brown's side promise that the coming contest will not be a national but a regional election, won in marginal seats that exist in roughly equal numbers in the south, north and Midlands. They've written off their chances in the southern marginals, but swear they're ahead in the key northern seats and competitive in the Midlands: aided, they say, by the fact that the Tories' appeal shrinks the further they get away from London.

Denis MacShane, the Rotherham MP, testifies that Cameron strikes even those of his constituents who now loathe Labour as irredeemably southern and metropolitan; their response to George Osborne is even more hostile. In a recent council byelection in Barnsley, the Conservatives came fifth behind Labour, the BNP, local independents and Ukip. Labour's high command contrasts this with the enthusiasm for Tony Blair – and poll numbers north of 50% – in 1997, and says the Tories are nowhere near where they need to be. Pollsters don't wholly disagree, noting the "softness" in Tory support, measured by those who say they might yet change their minds, and the scale of the mountain the Conservatives have to climb – needing to increase their number of MPs by the order of 70%. Look to the women, the Labour optimists say next. Among female voters the Conservative poll lead is smaller. That's why the heart of today's Queen's speech will be a new promise on social care for the elderly, aimed specifically at the 45- to 65-year-old women who are, say Labour strategists, "in the crunch" on care, either worried for themselves or their parents. The contrast will be clear, they hope, with Osborne's austerity message, which may have won plaudits from the well-cushioned commentariat but, they insist, repels regular voters. In this view, all that Labour canvassers have to say on the doorstep is that the Tories will have you working harder for longer: not a great vote-winner.

What else do they have up their sleeves? Downing Street has been studying hard the come-from-behind Conservative victory of 1992, helped by the presence of one of the lead operatives of that offensive around the current cabinet table: Shaun Woodward. That year the Tories hit their opponents by warning of Labour's "tax bombshell". In 2010 Labour is mulling a return of the compliment, warning that the Tories will drop their own bombshell – on tax credits, many of which help people on middle incomes. Another 1992 echo: Labour hopes to remind those in work and with a mortgage that they are, despite the recession, better off, thanks in part to ultra-low interest rates. They plan, too, to reprise one of Brown's favourite tunes, running 2010 as a "many, not the few" election. That the Tories have not dropped their proposed cut in inheritance tax – which will give a £200,000 tax break to the 3,000 wealthiest estates – while promising to repeal the ban on foxhunting only hands Labour a bigger target. "Government will now be of the rich, by the rich, for the rich," says MacShane. There's another potential Tory weakness. When the National Front was on the march in the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher moved swiftly, luring rightwing voters back to the Tory camp by talking their language, warning that immigrants threatened to "swamp" Britain. But that option is not open to the kinder, gentler David Cameron, not without fatally undermining his brand. So a boost for UKIP and the far-right BNP could split the right vote and see at least a few seats slipping from the Tories' grasp.

And, despite those stellar numbers in the ICM poll, Cameron is not without vulnerabilities. I'm told that one political communications professional – sympathetic to the Tory leader – asks his corporate clients what kind of strategy they wish to pursue: a Blair or a Cameron? The former is for those who want to tackle a difficult subject, the latter is for those who want to change the subject. The focus-group-meisters say the first story that voters tell when asked to talk about Cameron is still the one about him cycling to work – followed by a car carrying his bag. Or it's the Tory spinners briefing that Samantha Cameron was wearing a humble M&S off-the-peg dress – only for it to be revealed that the dress was in fact tailored especially for her on the orders of the store's chief executive. Labour can still try to brand Cameron as a fake. Put it all together, close your eyes, cross your fingers and, say Labour's most optimistic hearts, it could all come right on the night. The problem, says the former deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas, is that "this perfect combination of forces all have to come into line in time for election day". In other words, even if some of the strategists' hopes are realised, it's a stretch to believe they all will be.

What's more, plenty of those arguments wobble under scrutiny. Take the 1992 precedent. As an issue, tax credits lack the punch of income tax. And, even if Gordon Brown does analogise quite well to John Major, is David Cameron really Neil Kinnock, widely derided as "unelectable"? No. Labour is clinging to the belief that the race will tighten in the heat of an election campaign. But that's far from certain. Isn't it just as possible that Brown might look tired and clumsy, thereby reinforcing the Tories' time-for-a-change message? Even if they buy the optimistic scenario, plenty of Labour MPs are not quite sure what to do with it. For some it only makes them more frustrated, proof that the coming election really would be winnable if only they had one last element in place: a leader who had not, apparently, been written off by the electorate. Others take heart, believing that somehow they can stave off defeat without taking that fateful step. But they all know that it would take a miraculous dollop of luck for everything to go the way the Brown team say it might. And, right now, not many are feeling lucky.

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