One of the predictions that we on the left (and I include myself in this) have been confidently making is that when austerity starts to kick in and the true nature of the Tories programme becomes apparent, their popularity will drop like a stone.
Recent polling evidence would suggest that the opposite was true however. Cameron is hitting 40%, perilously close to figure he would need to get an overall majority. Considering employment is rising, he is pursuing NHS reforms that are potentially suicidal politically and the economy could well be about to re-enter recession, this is quite some achievement. How is he doing it? I would suggest a number of obvious reasons, none of them particularly edifying for those hoping he will crash and burn.
- The consequences of the crash and the decision to implement austerity to pay back the resulting deficit has had a huge impact on many people’s lives and living standards. We should be careful not to over-exaggerate the depths of this misery however. Many people are without a job and the effects of the cuts will be brutal. Many people remain are getting along just fine however. Some parts of the country appear immune to serious economic contraction, as always. In the South East the unemployment rate is half that of the North East, for example. Real incomes may fall for many over the next few years but not everyone. If the Tories can ensure that enough people do not noticeably suffer the consequences of possible recession, as Thatcher was able to, then Cameron and the Conservatives could well be looking at a sustained period in office. To be blunt, if the geezers are ok Cameron will be ok, as they are the bedrock of the Tories share of the votes and seats.
- The Tories attacks on the welfare state are partly motivated by ideology, but mostly I would guess it is base political calculation. Finding a scapegoat is classic Tory divide and rule, as I discussed yesterday. Inventing hordes of lazy scrounging benefits claimants is a great way of distracting from the real causes of the economic crisis. Given the poisonous discourse around the issue of welfare and the overwhelming public support for savage cuts in benefits, the Tories are kicking into an open goal and from a pure Machiavellian perspective it is great short term politics.
- Of course The Tories have the overwhelming support of the print media as well, and can be relied upon to batter Labour every day, make the focus of the debate issues like welfare and misrepresent what is really going on in the economy. The vast majority of mass circulation dailies and weeklies are either unashamedly Tory or are in any case fully in agreement with the Tories economic and social agenda. And the majority of the population have swallowed this daily diet of dishonest and dog-whistling propaganda, which is being reflected in the incredibly depressing polling data.
- I have discussed the failings of the Labour leadership more times than I care to remember. I will confine my comments this time merely to this: if Labour think accepting the policies and adopting the language of the right will be successful they are deluding themselves.
- One thing that has been neglected in the mainstream press, unsurprisingly, has been the failure of the recent industrial action to shake the government out of its complacency. Many of the leaders of the big public sector unions, such as Unison and the GMB, have essentially capitulated and accepted the majority of the government’s pension proposals since the November 30th day of action. The strike, in short, was a waste of time, and there is nothing more disillusioning for union members than the abject failure of a strike. While I have never detected any great enthusiasm for the strikes anywhere, there was a grim resolve to at least put up a fight against the government’s obscene proposals. That sentiment, and opportunity, seems to have been lost and it is a massive shame. The labour movement has within it the potential to really change things when it turns its mind to it and this strike will only serve to reinforce people’s cynicism about the relevance of trade unions. I have no idea of what Brendan Barber, Dave Prentis or Paul Kenny’s motivations actually are, but I fail to see how they have acted in the interests of their members on this one.
- And last but not least the personal factor. Cameron has played his hand reasonably well. The recent talk of ‘responsible capitalism’ served its purpose, i.e. doing nothing while appearing on the sincere and on right side of the argument. Many decisions that could later come back to bite him, i.e. his non-veto in Europe, are for now playing well. He has no obvious rivals in his own party (more on that tomorrow) and he has used the Coalition arrangements shrewdly, slowly suffocating the life out of the Lib Dems whilst leaving them with no option but to stay on, and laying the groundwork for a possible overall majority in 2015. There have been numerous gaffes, but he has got away with them in a way that Gordon Brown never could.
All very disheartening, I’m sure you’ll agree.