Monday 17 March 2008
Bruce Anderson: Some voters are struggling, some are coping. But they all want a little hope
Now is the time for David Cameron to respond to this new, anxious public mood
The latest poll, showing a 16 per cent Tory lead, came at the right moment for David Cameron's party (not that there is ever a wrong moment for such a poll). It will cheer up the Tory troops and send them off for Easter in good spirits. The calming was needed. In recent weeks, nerves had become frayed. A lot of Tories were worried about the lack of progress.
Last autumn, British politics briefly resembled a Civil War battle. Prince Rupert Cameron's cavalry broke through Roundhead Gordon's line. For a few weeks, it seemed as if the battle was won. But these Ironsides – or clunking fists – though not exactly the Gay Gordons, have a capacity for grim endurance. As was often the case with Prince Rupert, the Cavaliers were unable to capitalise on their early successes.
By the new year, the romantic phase was over and had been replaced by a First World War slogging match. The polls showed a steady seven-point Tory lead, which was beginning to worry the Tories. At this stage of a Parliament, seven points is nothing. In Number 10, meanwhile, the mood was improving. The PM no longer spends all day looking like that lost work of art, Rodin's The Brooder.
So beyond the polls and the metaphors, what is actually happening? The short answer is "nothing decisive". There is a great deal of volatility out there; the next election is still to be won or lost. But we can identify the decisive factor. The public will be offered two competing explanations for their present discontents. The outcome hangs on which one prevails.
Gordon Brown will say that as we are living in a difficult and dangerous world, the country needs a leader with experience and gravitas. He alone can provide it. David Cameron will respond by accusing the Prime Minister of adding to the difficulties and failing to anticipate the dangers.
The Tories will hope to encourage that most potent of political moods: time for a change. They have borrowed the phrase "didn't fix the roof while the sun was shining" from JFK and will use it endlessly between now and the election. This lot have had their chance, Mr Cameron will say. The have spent vast amounts of your money and what is there to show for it except waste and a nanny state?
Mr Cameron deployed those arguments to good effect in the Commons last week, which may explain the poll bounce. Even so, it is not enough. There is one crucial element missing from the Tories rhetoric and, without it, their language will not have sufficient purchase on political democraphy. In order to win, the Tories need to recapture a four letter word: hope.
We should forget traditional class categories. There are only two social groups which really matter in current British politics and most people in this country alternate between them, often several times a month. They are the coping class and the struggling class. Their income is under continual pressure from rising bills. They have long since concluded that the Government's inflation figures are a joke. They may have adequately paid jobs, which can just about keep pace with the cost of living. But in an era of global competition now compounded by global financial uncertainty, are they safe jobs?
Then there is education. The strugglers and copers are desperate to secure a good one for their children; this is possibly their greatest single anxiety. So what is the Government offering them? A lottery. A decade ago, Tony Blair talked about "education, education, education". After 10 years of non-delivery, many parents' reply would be "anger, anger, anger".
In one respect, Mr Cameron is to be commended. It would be wrong to try to entice these people with a crude, populist appeal designed to inflame them. Moreover, it probably would not work. The strugglers and copers are aware of economic realities; they know that there are limits to what a government can do. But there must be a middle way between irresponsibility and unresponsiveness. It is not nearly good enough for Mr Cameron to say, as he did yesterday, that his government would "stop making it worse". The voters will expect to take that for granted. If the Tory leader wants to win, he must assure the strugglers and copers that from day one, his government will be striving to make it better; that he will be working as hard on their behalf as they do on their own.
There is no need to make uncosted promises for year one. Still less, however, is there a need to rule out tax cuts until year five, as Philip Hammond did yesterday. Mr Hammond, the shadow Chief Secretary, is an able fellow. In his case, there could be an easy transition from shadow to substance, as long as he gets the politics right. Four Tory years without tax cuts? That could mean no tax cuts until 2015. Seven years; longer than it took to win the Second World War, longer than it took Ronald Reagan to transform America's fortunes. Philip Hammond referred to the Tories' second term. He ought to remember that they have yet to win the first one. His comments yesterday did not help.
After all, every successful peace-time Tory government has cut tax rates and relieved the tax burden on hard-pressed families. David Cameron intends to be a successful Tory prime minister and to win re-election. So he has every incentive to follow his predecessors' example. He ought to reassure the voters that he will cut taxes as soon as it is prudent to do so.
The strugglers and copers are not expecting miracles. They just want to feel that someone is on their side. If a Tory opposition responded to their concerns, expressed some of their indignation and generally gave them the impression that it knew how they felt, there are millions of votes to be won. As it is, however, there is a danger that David Cameron is living in the past. The Tory leader is still talking about transforming his party. He still seems obsessed with projecting a modern image. That was the agenda two years ago and back then, it was necessary. But it is now time to move on; to respond to the new, anxious, hard-edged public mood.
With the amount of chaos in the world at present, a party which breaks off from a serious engagement with the important issues to talk about its own internal affairs will look like a man who combs his hair in the mirror when the house is on fire.
Recent British general elections have had an increasingly presidential element, and the trend is unlikely to be reversed at the next one. As the electorate assesses the two leaders, many voters will ask themselves an over-riding question: which of them would be better at understanding me and my circumstances, which of them is the more real?
Mr Brown will imply that Mr Cameron's background debars him from an adequate grasp of reality. That is nonsense, but Mr Cameron will not be able to refute it by talking about maternity leave. The latest poll makes it even more likely that there will be no election before 2010. Between now and then, Mr Cameron will have to convince the strugglers and copers that he sympathises with their struggles and will help them to cope.
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