The dividing lines the Tories are drawing are false but powerful
Those glued to BBC Parliament over the Easter bank holiday watched the 1983 election played out in real time. The longest suicide note in history. Arthur Scargill and the Militants. Hapless media performances. Labour politicians blaming the Social Democratic party, the media and, by the end, the voters for defeat. Watching the BBC’s election night coverage we were reminded that the mythology of the 1983 defeat is not quite accurate. In reality, it was much, much worse. Labour in 1983 was a hair’s breadth from deserved extinction. It was only the determination of the modernisers which saved the Labour party, but it would take another decade and a half to win again.
The lessons are clear: if the Labour party thinks it knows best, and that its job is to harangue the voters until they change their minds, the voters will vote for someone else. If the Labour party applies its values to the problems of modern life, and has the courage to update policies to match modern concerns, it can win. In tune, we win; out of touch, we lose.
The Tories know how to win. They know that if they set up false choices over taxation, spending, benefits, immigration, defence and reform of the public services, and trap Labour on the wrong side of the argument, they can win over enough voters in the key marginals to form a majority. Labour can pile up votes in the cities, and among public sector workers and people on benefits (working or not). Every single voter directly affected by the ‘bedroom tax’, all 600,000 of them, can vote Labour from now until hell freezes over, and it will not put Ed Miliband anywhere near Downing Street.
The Tories know the voters they need live in suburbs and towns, work in the private sector, own their own homes, have no major dealings with the welfare state, and are generally fretful about the future. They can safely ignore the people queuing to buy Billy Bragg’s latest album. The Tories need to appeal to the 4.7 million people who choose to buy the Sun, Telegraph and Daily Mail each morning, not the 280,000 who choose the Guardian and Independent. They can ignore the six million workers who belong to trade unions, and appeal to the 23 million workers who do not.
In April, across the marginal constituencies, tens of thousands of such voters received a letter from David Cameron. The prime minister’s letter outlined two areas: personal finances, and welfare and benefits. On the former, it set out action to freeze council tax, scrapping petrol duty rises, increases to the state pension and raising the level for paying income tax. On the latter, it cited the cap on the ‘amount an out-of-work household can receive in benefits, so this can’t be more than the average working family earns’. The mailing coincided beautifully with the chancellor’s estuary English speech at Morrisons, and, by lucky chance, the crown court trial of a man on benefits who burnt his own children to death.
Inside the mailing is a pretend survey, asking whether you agree that ‘even before the banking crisis hit in 2008, the UK was borrowing too much money to pay for public services and public sector jobs that, in the long term, we couldn’t afford’, and ‘what has happened in Greece could just as easily have happened here’, and ‘people who play by the rules always seem to get a raw deal.’
This is the electoral terrain the Tories want to fight over. They know from every opinion poll ever published that a huge chunk of the country instinctively believes that Labour is profligate with their money, that the benefits system is unfair and rewards bad behaviour, and that public services do not work properly. If they can force Labour into a position of defending the broken system against reforms, defending its own record against deficit reduction, and defending the status quo against change, they can win the big arguments. If they can make Labour look like a party of minority and special interests, from trade union leaders to people on benefits, they can force Labour off the centre-ground, just like in 1983.
The Tories sent out two and a half million items of direct mail during the AV referendum. Just imagine how many direct mails they will be sending over the next two years. They target their potential voters using their sophisticated database codenamed MERLIN (Managing Elector Relationships through Local Information Networks). They build the relationship with the voters, based on surveys and local activists’ voter ID, all of it backed by the spine of a relentless, solid and sustained Tory narrative about how unfair and hard life is, and how it is all Labour’s fault. It is compelling stuff. And, if allowed to go unchecked, it stacks up votes in the places the Tories need to win. It has worked for them many times before, and we should not be too astonished if it works again.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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