Michael Brown: Furious fishwives and a party in deep peril

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Anger and pain summed up the political mood against Gordon Brown in Cleethorpes (Labour majority 2,642) where I spent last weekend with voters from my old constituency. I have been making the train journey from London to Scunthorpe and Cleethorpes for 32 years since I became the prospective Tory candidate in 1976. Some Fridays I dreaded going back – especially after some 1990s Tory weeks of horror in Westminster. These days, however, it has become my own personal trip down memory lane.

I had been invited to address the Cleethorpes Conservative Association's annual dinner – a sell-out lavish black-tie event at the local golf club, the like of which I have not experienced since the Thatcher glory days. My line, "for five elections between 1979 and 1997 I bellowed 'vote Brown' from a loudhailer on the back of a Land Rover; tonight I am here to tell you that, next time, on no account are you to vote Brown", probably got as good a cheer as anything a member of the shadow cabinet might have said.

What struck me more though, overhearing the conversations on the local Doncaster/Cleethorpes chugger was the real sense of anger, fuelled by financial pain, against Labour that now defines the reasons for the solid Tory poll leads. Of course they know me locally now, not as their MP, but haunting them in their living rooms from the political grave as the presenter of Yorkshire Television's politics programme, Last Orders. Across the carriage gangway we chatted, literally, about the price of bread and butter. And, goodness how those two old ladies moaned about the disconnect between the 50 per cent rise in these two everyday items and the official inflation figures Gordon Brown and his henchmen trumpet in the published figures. Edna asked her friend: "Vera, how can he say inflation's 2 per cent?"

And that one question alone sums up why Gordon Brown is likely to lose the next election. But the moaning was not the usual gripe against politicians. These fishwives (their husbands were retired trawlermen) were scared about how to join up the dots between their pensions and their bills. They were hurting. And when it comes down to the price of bread – well, revolutions have started because of that.

So when the Government announces, in the style of Marie Antoinette, inflation figures that bear absolutely no relation to the everyday experience of voters, you know something serious is up. I recalled the dog days when I would mouth the "lines to take" sent out by the party machine to help defend the indefensible. And I remembered, listening to Hazel Blears, this week, just how much worse I usually made the situation when I quoted some silly government statistic that bore no relation to the everyday experiences of those canny constituents.

My neighbour at the Tory dinner table did not have a clue – why should he? – how it was that on the day that the bank rate had been reduced by a further quarter per cent that he had just received a red letter from his building society telling him his variable mortgage rate would increase. So when Gordon Brown states, clumsily to say the least, that he understands people's "worries", it cuts no ice unless he is able to compensate them financially.

This dodge of mortgages increasing while the bank rate goes down is regarded ultimately as a trick of the light for which the Prime Minister is seen as ultimately responsible. Playing devil's advocate I attempted unsuccessfully, Gordon Brown-style, to shift the blame by explaining "sub-prime/USA", "credit crunch" and "liquidity" to my fellow dinner guest. His remarkably profound response was that if it has to be explained, a political argument is probably lost at the ballot box. Gordon Brown, I concluded, has lost the banking crisis argument.

And as for taking £200 more in tax from those without children earning less than £18,000 in Immingham – Labour's area of bedrock support – well, no wonder the Labour MP is keeping a low profile. For those on PAYE, the first they will cotton on is the day before polling day when they receive their first pay packet with the new Brown tax on the poor duly deducted. This has Kenneth Clarke's Tory-VAT-on-fuel gaffe in 1993 written all over it. Watch out for a Tory win in the Immingham ward!

But the extraordinary experience of seeing Tory posters – unvandalised – even in the wards that are represented by Labour councillors also told me, anecdotally, that the local Tory Party is finally back from the dead. And there is no magic to election wins and defeats. If people are worse off today compared with yesterday they won't vote for an incumbent government tomorrow.

It's increasingly looking like "Cleethorpes: Conservative Gain".


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