Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Younge ones

Follow the fashionable advice to cast a protest vote and wake up to a Tory government, warns Tom Watson

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I shudder to think what will happen to the lives of the people I represent in West Bromwich East if the Tories get their hands on the economy. Most people I talk to tell me that I’m being paranoid. They say there is no way that people will even consider voting Conservative when their plans are rooted in the boom-and-bust economics of the past.

In a paradoxical kind of way, this mindset is actually benefiting the Tories. It allows people like Gary Younge of the Guardian to urge people to vote Liberal Democrat or Respect or (insert your own party of protest here) without shouldering the consequences of letting Michael Howard into Downing Street through the back door.

In fact, the whole Tory strategy seems to be to convince people that they can’t win, so why not send a little message to Tony Blair. Lynton Crosby, the campaign guy they brought over from Australia, has past form in this area. It’s how he got the other rightwing Howard elected down under. He told people to ‘send Labour a message’ and in the end he won.

Added to that, the Tories and their friends in the rightwing media are seeking to spread cynicism in the whole political process and talking down the achievements of the country. If people feel disillusioned about politics, they are less likely to go out and vote. And we all know that low-turnout elections mean it is easier for the Tories to sneak home. Our response to this has to be to inject some common sense into the veins of commentators who know better and to focus on Tory policy, not their propaganda.

The Tories know they are hugely vulnerable on their party’s record and Michael Howard’s shameful period in office, so they are trying to derail Labour’s work in highlighting it. The overblown row over the anti-Tory posters in January and the repeated attempts to demonise Alastair Campbell are all aimed at stopping us from attacking Michael Howard. We must not be deflected from setting out the clear choice facing the country at the election.

The Tories latch on to anything they can think of as examples of so-called ‘dirty tricks’ as an excuse to launch a bitter personal attack against Tony Blair. In league with the Daily Mail, Liam Fox has already started targeting the prime minister’s wife. And they are secretly amassing a dirty tricks squad of Hooray Henrys from Conservative Future to go round stirring up trouble for Labour during the election campaign.

While their leader, their record and the Tory brand are all vote losers, the Tories also know they cannot win on health and education. Party chairman Liam Fox has admitted this, telling The Times: ‘I never believed we could win on these issues.’ Backbench MP Edward Leigh has even said, ‘If you want to spend more money on the NHS, if you want to spend more money on state education, you are going to vote Labour.’

Aware that their commitment to £35bn of public spending cuts will hurt schools and hospitals, the Tories simply don’t talk about them. And knowing that their ‘passports’ voucher schemes mean cutting money from the NHS and state schools to subsidise people who pay to go private, they’re keeping suspiciously quiet. So the health ‘passport’, which Iain Duncan Smith had put centre stage in the party’s campaigns, was relegated to just a couple of lines in the back of the health chapter of their pre-election manifesto.

Just as well – voters had begun to realise that it meant a hip operation would cost them around £7,000 and that if they needed a heart bypass they’d be landed with a bill for some £10,000. As well as the usual frightening finances and cuts we’re used to, they’re now indulging in the sort of fantasy finances that would make the Liberal Democrats proud. On pensions, council tax and many other areas, they’re making big promises they know they can’t keep.

They’re not just silent on many of the key issues but in whole swathes of the country, too. At the Saatchi gallery launch of his leadership campaign in October 2003, Howard made clear there would be ‘no no-go areas for a modern Conservative party.’ ‘Many of our great provincial cities are Conservative deserts today. It’s my mission to change that,’ he pledged. But it’s been mission failure, with Howard admitting just one year later: ‘I would love to win in seats in Newcastle and Liverpool, and other big cities in the north, but we can win the general election without doing that.’

Their commitment to some constituencies is so poor that the only link some Tory candidates have to heartlands seats is that they share the same name. So we have Lee Rotherham trying for the South Yorkshire seat and Rosemary Bromwich standing against me. Yet in the marginal seats, where the election will be won or lost and Howard’s leadership shattered or secured, they are targeting their efforts and resources with more discipline than ever before.

Admittedly, some constituencies where the candidates are close to the former Tory Treasurer Lord Ashcroft are getting special favours and extra cash, but the most marginal seats are seeing huge efforts from the centre. Ten years behind the Labour party, their call centre in Coleshill is a new innovation for the Conservatives and they’re churning out millions of direct mail shots.

Yet the Voter Vault and Mosaic computer programs they keep shouting from the rooftops about aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. An empty voter vault can’t make up for years of relationship-building with the voters that most Labour MPs and candidates use Labour Contact for. And a marketing database that tells you people’s shopping habits cannot be a substitute for an intimate knowledge of a constituency.

Nevertheless, we should remember that, even if we do not see Tory activists on the ground, it doesn’t mean their campaign isn’t happening. They’re desperate to win, because they know another big defeat will force them into the rethink they failed to have in 1997 or 2001. They’ll use any tactics they can and they’re relying on Labour supporters staying at home or casting a ‘comfortable protest vote’ to slip in through the back door. So we cannot be complacent and assume people won’t vote Tory and we cannot write them off.

So, fellow Progress reader, our task is a simple one. Tell Gary Younge of the Guardian and anyone else who supports his view: if you vote Lib Dem you get the Tories. If you vote ‘Respect’ you get the Tories. If you protest vote or spoil your ballot paper you get the Tories. If you stay at home you get the Tories.

No excuses, just the Tories.

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Tom Watson MP

is MP for West Bromwich East

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