A much meaner tribe

It is fashionable to say the big parties are the same now. The Wirral proves otherwise
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The Independent Online
"They're all the same, all the same, all the same," said an angry old woman in a white felt hat. She was watching Michael Portillo perched on a bench inside the bus shelter in the town centre of Heswall, in the constituency of Wirral South, where the by-election will be called today. Beaming and mugging for the cameras, tossing his quiff, he had a well- tailored arm draped patronisingly round the gawky local candidate. The woman, a non-voter, shook her head in disgust at the spectacle.

Every weary canvasser knows that cry of contempt from the we-don't-votes and the bugger-off-out-of-its, the mad, the sad and the stupid. But now you can hear the same sentiments in the salons and the wine bars, the foyers and the galleries, the bistros and trattorias of the bien-pensant metropolitan intelligensia: "They're all the same. Why bother? What does it matter which party wins if they're all Tories anyway?" With Labour within an inch of victory, now they shrug and turn away: "All the same, all the same."

How wrong they are. Watching Michael Portillo charm his way around the room at a house meeting in the most exclusive part of the constituency, a tribal homeland of conservatism, these are either your people or they are not. Never mind the five pledges or the position papers, the manifestos or the latest Big Idea, in the end, it's the tribe that counts - them and us.

How he charmed them! The tribe sighs and leans towards him, like reeds bending to the wind of his breath, "Ah yes!" "Ye-es!" "Absolutely yes!" they murmur, a soughing of satisfaction rippling through the gathering to the clink of tea cups and crystal sherry glasses. How he titillates with talk of law and order, loyalty and royalty. How he croons to them of assisted places, grammar schools and prisons - and the constant refrain of Danger! Danger! Danger! The threat is to Ours, Us, People Like Us, Nice People with Nice Habits, Our Tribe.

Strolling down the Heswall shopping street or here in the house of the faithful, he was among his own kind, well away from Labour's tribal lands, the council estates of Bromborough or the western wards. The Defence Secretary knows his own because Tory faces light up as they see his shimmering celebrity approach them in the street. (Others, not his kind, turn sharply away.) Perhaps it is the fruity voice, the hair or the electric smile - but what pleases most is the tribal confidence with which he welcomes each one of them warmly as One Of Us.

What is it to be One of Them? I stopped and asked a score of dazed admirers in his wake, why are you a Conservative? First they look astonished by the daft question. Why breathe? Why live? "I always have been, all my family, always," one says, and is then stumped - the first response is always from the tribal gut. Aileen Scales in the house meeting replied smartly, "My great great-grandfather worked for Lord Derby in Liverpool. My grandfather worked for Joseph Chamberlain. All my family has been Conservative for ever!"

Yes, but why? Prodded, they will give other reasons: "I don't like that single currency, for one thing," says Mrs Scales. "Labour has no experience of government," said another. "I don't trust that Tony Blair," said a young woman; while a man in a gold-buttoned blazer opined, "They'd hand it all over to the unions again." One woman said, "Labour is all Scots. Now I've nothing against Scots in their own country but why should they come down here ruling us?" They talked of the economy, Europe or the grammar schools. But in truth they were searching around for excuses - because the obvious truth is never spoken in polite circles.

No, it is not a simple matter of class, though class comes into it. As it happens, if asked to pick out the Wirral South Labour and Tory candidates from an identity parade, most would get it wrong: Les Byrom, the Tory leader of Sefton council, a surveyor by profession, is secondary-modern educated, badly dressed, talks with a Merseyside accent (where they call Blair Blurr), has a bit of a charisma deficit and makes appalling jokes. Ben Chapman for Labour is dapper in a double-breasted navy blue pin-stripe suit and nippy black moccasins, speaks BBC RP, has been a diplomat in China for many years, was head of the DTI for the region until recently and is so new Labour that he only joined the party nine months ago.

David Blunkett has been down here to swear his allegiance in blood to the wonderful grammar schools of the Wirral, because the Tories are blitzing the place with stories that Labour will turn them all comprehensive. Hard to know who is lying the hardest.

As it happens the Tory candidate was a victim of the grammar school system. By the bus shelter, watching Portillo, were some 15-year-olds who had also failed the 11-plus. Did it hurt? Yes, badly, painfully, when their friends whisked off to grammar school. Did failing hurt Les Byrom? He turned glassy eyed when I asked him to cast his mind back: "I don't remember." As if. Everyone remembers that, for ever. That is why supporting the grammar schools may not be good policy - two-thirds of the children here fail and are cast among the goats. But never mind, People Like Us believe in the selection of the fittest. People Like Us just assume that it will be Our children that get selected.

No, the real but never spoken reason that People Like Them vote Conservative is because they want to hold on to what they have got, get more, and give nothing to anyone else - except their old clothes to the charity shop. The Conservative tribe is the clan of Haves and Wannahaves. Meanness of spirit is their guide, suspicion of others, a desire to stop things, lock people up, shut out the poor, build partitions and blame the underdog. It was ever thus.

On the other side - Labour or Lib Dem - are those who try to be nicer than them. To be sure, large numbers may vote out of class self-interest - Labour has always done more for the lower-income groups and no doubt will try to do so again. But all through the ranks of the Labour/Lib Dem tribes the talk is of higher things, of generosity, concern, projects for the improvement of society, aspirations and good intentions.

The problem for Labour is how to pretend to be like them. It isn't easy because the Tory tribe knows its own and they can smell out this Labour lamb in wolf's clothing. For all their Tory policies, new Labour, thank God, just is not Tory, however much it tries to growl and bark and howl like them. No doubt Labour is set to win the Wirral for there are plenty of angry Tory voters there who want to give their own party a kicking for inchoate and essentially illogical reasons - Major is a ditherer, they want out of Europe or just fury at the chaos among the leadership. The question is, come the general election, will tribal loyalty and fear of the other clan send them scuttling back?

After all, 80 per cent of the voters never change. Most of us know which tribe we are. The battleground is fought out among the relatively few members of the Don't-know-don't-much-care clan, who are stupider and worse informed than the average voter, an unsatisfactory bunch in whom to vest the future of the nation, but there it is.

As for those other disaffecteds - the metropolitan intelligensia who airily say the parties are now all the same - I suggest they should spend a little more time with the other clan in order to remind themselves. Had they sniffed the air of Portillo's house meeting, they would have left feeling considerably less angry about Gordon Brown's income tax pledge, or Jack Straw's children's curfew or even Blunkett's grammar schools. Whatever else Labour may be, they are not the tribe that has ruled over us in selfishness, meanness, greed and spite for the past 18 years.