Andrew Grice: The ghosts of politics past that haunt Labour and Tory election campaigns

The Tories revel in a spring of discontent...but the number of strikes is tiny compared with the 70s

Share
Related Topics

Sometimes the small things tell us big things. The script for Labour politicians is to frame "the choice" at the general election as between "Labour and the Conservatives", while the Tories invite people to choose between "another five years of Gordon Brown" and "David Cameron and change".

Labour is confident that voters like its values if not its leader, who is the party's weak point. Conversely, the Tories have bet the farm on Mr Cameron, their prized asset and symbol of change – or so they hope. Their Achilles' heel, and the Labour attack they most fear, is "same old Tories". It undermines their central pitch that, because Mr Cameron has changed his party, both he and it are fit to change the country.

Both main parties are being haunted by returning ghosts. Labour's election preparations risk being derailed by the strikes at British Airways and on the railways, allowing the Tories to revel in a "spring of discontent". Meanwhile, the row over Lord Ashcroft's tax status, skilfully resurrected by Alistair Darling in his Budget, casts doubt over the Tories' claim no longer to be the party of the rich. Focus groups tell Labour that people thought Mr Cameron had "sorted" the problem over his party's deputy chairman years ago. The "Tory toff" card, if played subtly rather than shrieked desperately by Labour, may damage Mr Cameron. Some voters see him as a man who looks after his friends.

How dangerous are the old ghosts? Tory warnings about a "return to the 1970s", gleefully taken up by right-wing newspapers, may strike a chord but will mean less to a first-time voter born in 1992. True, some messages are handed down the generations. Voting Tory in Scotland is unthinkable for many, even though they can't remember a Tory government. Folk memories of an uncaring Thatcher government play on the minds of some people who can't recall it as they weigh up Mr Cameron.

Mr Darling's admission that Labour's cuts will be "tougher and deeper" than Baroness Thatcher's was not exactly in Labour's election handbook. This now includes what he should have said: cuts in some budgets will be as deep as Lady Thatcher's in order to protect vital frontline services. The unions are a headache for Labour but if Mr Brown and his ministers continue to distance themselves from the strikes, they may be less damaging to the party's prospects than the Tories hope. Yes, Labour is heavily dependent on the unions for funding. It had nowhere else to turn when big individual donations dried up after the "cash for honours" affair engulfed Tony Blair's government. But the number of strikes is tiny compared with the 1970s and nobody can say the unions have called the shots since 1997.

For the most part, they have been the dog that didn't bark – until now. Plenty of the unions' policy demands won little sympathy from the Government, which is why Bob Crow, now leading the rail workers into industrial action after Easter, took the RMT's ball away and disaffiliated from Labour in 2004.

What cabinet ministers fear most is that the strikes will drown out Labour's campaign messages, such as the pledges that Mr Brown will speak about today. The Tories had a similar problem with the Ashcroft row. A party leader might want to talk about his shiny new policy, but the media may decide that strikes or tax havens are more sexy.

Labour had another headache this week when a ghost which stalked the last Tory government under John Major – sleaze – turned up unexpectedly on its doorstep. The "Lobbygate" exposé of the former cabinet ministers Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon apparently touting for business looked very damaging. It seemed like the final chapter of a story which began when Mr Blair said New Labour had to be "whiter than white" and the people's servants not their masters after evicting the sleaze-ridden Tories. Animal Farm, perhaps.

Today, the voters think all politicians have their snouts in the trough. Labour's polling suggests that last year's scandal over MPs' expenses hurt the party not so much because it is the governing party or has more MPs, but because people associated sleaze with the Tories and thought Labour was different. Now they think all politicians are as bad as one another. "A plague on both your houses", was a phrase used in both the Brown and Cameron inner circles this week as they assessed the fall-out from Lobbygate. Reports from the election front line suggest that MPs' expenses is still a big issue for many voters, a stinky symbol of their distaste for the political class as a whole – and surely a major reason why the Tories are not streets ahead in the opinion polls.

The strikes, the lobbying scandal and a neutral Budget that was never going to be a game-changer do not appear to have harmed Labour's standing. If anything, the Tories' poll lead has narrowed this week and a hung parliament looks increasingly likely. Why?

The only answer is that, for all the negative feelings towards Mr Brown, there is little enthusiasm for the Tories. Mr Cameron has 40 days to persuade people he offers real change and to generate some positives by answering the "change to what?" question.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker