Leading Article: Fear and foreboding coming to Woking

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RARELY can there have been so wide a gap as now between the health of the economy (robust) and the ratings of the governing party (terrible). A recent Gallup poll found support for Labour running at 56.5 per cent of the electorate, an all-time high giving Labour a 33.5 per cent lead over the Conservatives. The same poll found Labour more trusted than the Tories to cope with 14 big political issues, including law and order, taxation and defence. The bad news for the Government did not stop there: 43 per cent of those polled by ICM reckoned Tony Blair would make the best prime minister, against 17 per cent for John Major.

All of which suggests that the state of the economy plays a smaller role in shaping political attitudes than we used to think. The Conservatives won the 1992 election against the odds from close to the bottom of a recession deepened by their own mismanagement. Those days are behind us. The Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, expects national output to grow this year by 2.7 per cent. Private consumption has risen by roughly 3.5 per cent for the past two years. Inflation is 2.6 per cent, unemployment continues to fall and house prices have stopped their descent.

Yet none of this is helping the Government's popularity. Several factors explain this. One is the Tony Blair effect. That is bound to diminish as the honeymoon ends and more critics, from left and right, take up Peter Hain's line about 'soft-focus smiles and no substance'. Even so, Mr Blair's judicious revisionism and charisma will make him a formidable opponent for Mr Major. Then there are the charmless personalities and exhausted politics of the Government. Above and beyond these narrow political reasons, however, looms a cloud which should concern every democratic party in Britain, and beyond.

This is the new insecurity of the middle classes. Some years ago JK Galbraith argued that the 'culture of contentment' would secure the electoral success of Thatcherism and Reaganism for the foreseeable future, because the advantaged would continue to outnumber the disdavantaged. The beggar on the street might be a morally unpleasant sight to the better-off, but they knew where their self-interest lay. Now, suddenly, the middle classes are no longer so contented, and feel, even in southern England, that their heyday may be over.

They have good reason. Home-ownership - or rather mortgage-ownership - is no longer an easy way to personal profit, because that market depends on inflation to reduce the cost of the mortgage while inflating the price of the property. Nor is tax relief on mortgages - frozen and perhaps close to abolition - the boon it once was.

Voters who used to 'feel good' about the rising price of their bricks and mortar now feel bad about the negative equity they hold with the bank or building society. Expensive substitutes for poor state education and a fragile NHS do nothing to lessen the burden.

The future looks no brighter. The long summmer of the salaried middle class - jobs for life, the prospect of promotion and the annual wage increase - is drawing to its close. Almost every business - electricity companies and banks this week - wants to improve efficiency and drive down costs. The dole queue has stopped being something that happens to other people.

The more intelligent parts of the Conservative Party know this. Kenneth Clarke has spoken of the need to increase 'Middle England's' sense of security. But what they or any other party can do about it is a different matter. The truth is that we are in the middle of history's second great industrial and economic revolution. The excesses of the first went unconstrained by democratic politics. To heal the damage caused by the second is probably the largest task facing the politics of the developed (and developing) world.