So they received none of the usual boost that the high media profile and set piece speeches give these parties after their conferences, in fact the opposite.
I’m not surprised. Telling everyone that they are going to have to work a year longer before they get a pension is hardly popular. Nor is the constant refrain that cuts in the public sector, of both jobs and services, are absolutely necessary to overcome the budget deficit.
To add insult to injury, the nasty medicine was administered by George Osborne and David Cameron – both from private school and extremely wealthy families. Osborne, heir to the up-market wallpaper company Osborne and Little, and educated at the elite St Paul’s school in London, told us that we’re all in this together. Samantha Cameron wore a Marks & Spencer polka dot dress for the occasion of her old Etonian husband’s speech. How many other M&S dresses she has in her designer wardrobe is unclear.
The speeches sent a shiver down my spine, and it’s clear I’m not alone. I watched a couple of focus groups on Newsnight during the conference. They showed many people, including the young, who didn’t trust the Tories, who said that there are class divisions in Britain, and who drew on their families’ own experiences of past Tory governments and of the miners’ strike.
So lots of people don’t trust the Tories. Indeed, polling seems to show that support for them is at least as much about disillusion with Labour as it is about positive endorsement for the Tories. All that should be good for Labour. But here’s the rub.
Labour should be seizing on this lack of enthusiasm for the Tories by attacking their policies. There is, of course, a bit of that. Labour is now picking up on its polling figures to go on about the “same old Tories”. But the problem is that Labour ministers are themselves adopting the “same old Tory” policies, especially accepting that cuts are inevitable and will fall disproportionately on the poor, the sick and disabled, the young and the old.
The party conference season turned into a grotesque bidding war as to who could cut the most with the greatest enthusiasm and macho rhetoric. None of the targets of these cuts were the bankers, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the widespread tax evasion by companies and rich individuals.
You can see how much we’re all in this together by looking at what exercises the politicians. When parliament returned, an immediate row broke out – not over why the poorest should pay for the crisis, but over MPs’ expenses and whether it was fair to make them pay back money they should not have received. It says a great deal about the distance between MPs and those they supposedly represent that they had so little to say on issues concerning working class people and so much to say about any extremely minor assault on their own wealth.
This is the dilemma: we go into an election probably in only six months time where workers’ concerns are about their own futures and livelihoods. They want decent education for their children, the chance of a job, higher wages, better living standards, housing that everyone can afford, good public services, the end of work insecurity.
Yet there has probably never been a bigger gap between what working people want and what is on offer from the main parties: featherbedding for bankers and bosses, attacks on workers like those in the post office who stand up for their rights, high unemployment and cuts. It is increasingly obvious that it will take a fight to defend what we’ve got from the cutters and butchers, regardless of who forms the next government. But scepticism about the Tories shows that while many people in Britain don’t like Labour they are not persuaded by the arguments that they have to make sacrifices.
The war in Afghanistan is feeding that sentiment. The growing unpopularity of the war is at its strongest among working class people. Recent polls show this opposition to war is far higher among the sociological classes C2, D and E than among professional ABs.
I guess this is for two reasons: it is from the working class that those who go to fight in Afghanistan are largely drawn, and an increasing number of them are being killed or seriously injured. And these are the same people who are already struggling under the impact of recession, and who are now told they will have to sacrifice more because we’re all in this together.
This feeling in the working class can turn into a powerful opposition, whatever the outcome of the election.
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