Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The polls might actually be right.

It might seem easy to dismiss the latest Guardian/ICM opinion poll showing the Tories in contention to win the next general election. It’s deep summer, Blair’s away leaving “crap” John Prescott’s in charge, and we’ve just had a serious security scare. Hardly surprising, then, if the polls are all over the place.

Except that they aren’t. There has been a secular trend of Labour decline now for fully a year. And while it’s too soon to forecast a Tory victory, the opinion poll evidence of the last year shows Labour has lost it - at least in terms of an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons.

We really can’t ignore this. The Tories are at their highest in the polls for 19 years and we are living in a new political era. For the first time since the Black Wednesday debacle which destroyed the Tory government of John Major in 1992, there is now an established Conservative lead. And Labour are doing everything to maintain it, by presenting a divided front over issues like Lebanon and immigration.

David Cameron may have been having difficulties with some of the old guard in the Tory Party who think he should be tougher on tax and immigration and don’t particularly like the idea of having women candidates foisted upon them. But there’s no doubt that the Tory leader’s strategy is working. He has erased a lot of the reasons people didn’t vote Tory in the past - hostility to immigrants and homosexuals, public service cuts etc.. Labour used to call this “eliminating the negatives” in the 1990s and the Conservatives have shown they can do it too.

However, the modernisation of the political right isn’t all that’s going on. There are messages in the recent polls which should be profoundly worrying for Labour - and Gordon Brown in particular, since he stands to inherit the ruins of this government. Indeed, there is a very disturbing message for whichever party comes to power in Westminster.

In the ICM poll, only 1% of voters said they believe the government’s foreign policy has made Britain safer . One percent! That is a devastating commentary on the “war on terror” which Tony Blair has been fighting - with Brown and Cameron’s help - for the last five years. Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to make us feel more secure, not less. In times of international tension and terrorist attacks like last week’s abortive plane bombing, voters are supposed to rally behind the government of the day. It’s the Churchill effect. Not this time.

Moreover, only 20% of voters say they think the government is telling the truth about the threat, 26% suspect the government has exaggerated the danger to the public and 51 % think the government is not telling the full truth. This comes as dramatic confirmation of the rampant paranoia that I examined in this space last week and which has been been unleashed by the war on terror.

People clearly now regard this government as toxic to the body politic. This is could readily evolve into an “anyone-but-Labour” movement in the country, similar to the popular revolt against the Tories in 1997. In this state of mind, voters don’t really need to have huge expectations of David Cameron - they just need a credible alternative, an opposition party which seems to have learned some lessons, has made its peace with the modern world and that looks half competent.

The question is: what is Gordon Brown doing about all this? The Chancellor has disappeared from the face of political map while he is on paternity leave with his one month old son. Good for him. Shows he means it about restoring the work/life balance. But the troops are getting restive. “Gordon’s fiddling with nappies while Labour burns” as one Labourite put it. Apart from releasing the bank account details of the alleged plane bombers, the Chancellor has said nothing of substance since he made that string of commitments to keep Trident, build more nuclear power stations and press ahead with privatisation in the NHS.

Some unreconstructed modernisers evidently think that it’s safe to come out of the woodwork again, which is why the former industry secretary, Stephen Byers, made his call for the Chancellor to scrap inheritance tax relief this week. John Reid, the Home Secretary, has re-emerged as a possible leadership contender who is tough on crime, tough on terror and tough on immigration - well, tougher than Gordon anyway.

But the Chancellor is unmoved. Perhaps he believes that the challengers are so feeble, they’re not worth dignifying with a response. It has been left to Alastair Darling (surely now the Chancellor of the Exchequer-in-waiting) to slap down calls for tax cuts for the top 6% of home owners and remind people of the economic benefits to Britain of immigration from the EU.

The Chancellor would have no truck with Guardian liberals like Polly Toynbee who want to curb immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. In the Chancellor’s eyes, the 600,000 who have come from new accession states in the last two years are a measure of the success of the British economy. Their taxes easily pay for their limited welfare rights and they constitute no proven threat to wage levels of British workers. That’s according to the Treasury - though I suspect people working in the building trades, hotels and catering might disagree.

But the debate on immigration is not one the Chancellor has engaged with, and nor has he been doing anything obvious to counter David Cameron, or present a different front on Iraq. Presumably, Gordon Brown’s silence is designed to prevent at least some of the mud from the Middle East from sticking to him. So long as the Chancellor keeps silent about the Lebanon and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the less he will be seen to be to blame for it.

But he can’t ignore the polls. The situation is a critical one for Labour. They face an acrimonious conference in Manchester next month in which the pressure will be on Tony Blair to announce his departure date - though all indications are that he will not oblige. This means a prolonged leadership struggle against a background of deepening uncertainty over national security. So long as Blair is Prime Minister, and continues uncritically to support the Bush foreign policy, Britain will remain in the front line and therefore a prime target of terror.

Then, next May, the Labour Party is expected to get a severe drubbing in the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections. Jack McConnell’s people are bracing themselves for losses, and able politicians, like the former Health Minister, Susan Deacon, seem to have decided there is little future in Holyrood for Labour.

All this means that there is little real chance of a Labour revival until 2008/9. It will be a massive task for Brown when he finally takes over undoing all this and measuring up to David Cameron. Labour’s party organisation is largely bankrupt and activists have left in droves following the cash-for-peerages scandal. But they were leaving in droves even before that.

Of course, a change of leadership might work wonders, and Brown showed his popularity in the 2005 electin campaign when he rode to Blair’s rescue. But the risk is that Labour has left it too late. Gordon Brown may be the leader who has to take Labour back into opposition.

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