Labour only has one card left to play in its pack if it is to avoid humiliation at next year’s general election – keep hollering that David Cameron is out to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher.
Folk memories of those terrible years reach down to those who were not even alive in the 1980s. There was a horrified response from parents and staff when I raised the threat a Tory government poses to the Sure Start pre-school care scheme at my local children’s centre last week.
Watching the Tory Party conference, where Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne promised pay freezes, a hike in the retirement age and cuts in benefits in an “age of austerity”, has made people scared.
It is unlikely though that this will be enough to make them vote Labour. Labour backbenchers fear the party is going to get the mother of all drubbings.
In part that is because Gordon Brown is determined to match the Tory plans. As the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee has pointed out, whenever Cameron promises a cut, Brown shouts “me too”, claiming he’s already doing it himself.
Brown’s latest wheeze is a fire sale of state-owned assets from the Tote betting company to student loans. Yet the likelihood of Cameron reaching 10 Downing Street should not panic us into thinking this means a return to the Thatcher years.
Only a year ago Cameron was posturing as a Tory Tony Blair, rather than the “Iron Lady”. His switch to a tougher position is still cloaked in rhetoric about reducing poverty and defending the NHS.
Voters knew what they were getting when they voted for Thatcher in 1979. She set out a clear free market and anti-union agenda.
Today the rise in the Tory vote is not hard support for Cameron’s agenda. A poll commissioned by the BBC found that 64 percent of those intending to vote Tory will do so “mainly” as a vote against Brown and Labour. In other words, it’s more a protest vote than support for the Tories.
Senior Tories are also concerned that Cameron and Osborne may have bitten off more than they chew. Thatcher drove through her attacks by picking off one group of workers after another, carefully preparing the ground for the key confrontation with the miners.
Cameron will have to take on a number of groups at the same time to achieve his goals.
The Evening Standard newspaper’s business editor Chris Blackhurst wrote a piece last week, headlined, “Tories Can’t Return To Eighties Dogma.”
He pointed out, “As Adam Crozier at the Royal Mail, Willie Walsh at BA and other hard-talking, modernising bosses have already found – saying something and putting it into practice isn’t always easy. In all probability, David Cameron and George Osborne are going to make the same discovery.”
Their claims that we are “all in this together” will fall flat because people resent the bankers’ bonuses, the refusal of MPs to repay their expenses and the vast sums that the likes of Walsh and Crozier grab.
Blackhurst concludes, “As the Royal Mail, BA and Leeds council show, the unions have not gone away... Already, warning bells are ringing that the Tories are in danger of getting off on the wrong foot by slapping on pay restrictions, strutting and trumpeting macho politics.
“If they want to galvanise the unions they are going the right way about it. And they only need ask Crozier and Walsh how that feels.”
A weak Tory government and a weak Labour opposition could encourage a fightback over the Tories’ plans.
This could also lead to a serious discussion among trade unionists, ex-Labour voters and the left about the need to create an effective electoral voice for working people.
The future is being shaped now by the outcome of the battles in the post and elsewhere. A defeat for our side will encourage the employers and the Tories to go on the rampage. A victory can inspire a massive kick back against attacks on our wages, services, jobs and pensions.