The UK media have been scratching their pointy heads of late as the opinion poll gap between New Labour and the Tories has closed to indicate at best a hung parliament. Despite looming and actual strikes, a record budget deficit with no prospect of recovery, real and impending tax rises, unemployment levels at a 30 year high, a weakened currency with no corresponding rise in exports, threats of public sector cuts, particularly in the education sector, a costly, murderous unwinnable, and strategically inexplicable war and a hopeless, bullying unelected gargoyle with little or no charisma, the nation apparently remains undecided. Why?
Leaving aside their general incompetence, bad advisors, dodgy donors, hooray Henry Metrocentricity and extreme reluctance to clarify, much less detail, any sensible policies, even the New Tories should have been able to savage the field of half-dead sheep that passes for the incumbent UK government. Part of the reason is demographics – Britain’s ‘much-admired’ first past the post voting system has been comprehensively gerrymandered so as to make it very difficult indeed for the party which gets a popular majority to ensure a working majority of seats. This has worked in favour of the Tories in the past, so no sympathy there. To ensure a landslide along the lines of the Labour 1997 victory, the Tories would need to be looking at a 15 point opinion poll lead at this stage. This time last year, it was trending that way. So whatever could be the matter?
It’s the economy, stupid. Or rather, the bubble economy which constitutes the UK public sector. Under New Labour, it now accounts for 6.1 million jobs out of 21.6 million full time workers, representing 28 percent of the UK workforce, the vast majority of which must be assumed to be ‘natural’ Labour voters. In addition, there are 7.1 million part time workers, many of whom either work in the public sector and participate in McJob schemes. That’s not to count the 2.3 million higher education students and 176,000 academics who teach them. The vast majority of these cadres wouldn’t be considered natural Tories. – nor have the Tories given them any reason to change their collective minds – but now they aren’t so sure of their masters’ intentions either. Proposed Labour cuts in the Higher Education budgets will definitely reduce jobs and the number of student places, plus a growing wave of discontent amongst workers in areas of the civil service, Network Rail and (privatised) British Airways, may mean that a significant number will lose faith in the ‘devil you know’ nostrum and punish the incumbents.
Moreover, despite the recession and clear evidence that the sporran is empty, Gordon’s job creation schemes, designed to massage grisly employment figures, have continued apace. Overall unemployment rose by 54,000 in the three months to January 2010, but this was mitigated by 20,000 new jobs in the NHS – 1.3 million employees – alone. Employment in the private sector fell by 61,000 in the last quarter of 2009 alone. Nobody can seriously believe that this version of Maoist economics can lead anywhere but to the IMF.
Voter turnout in the 2001 and 2005 General Elections was 59.4 and 61.4 percent respectively, compared to 77.7 and 71.4 percent in 1992 and 1997. John Major’s Tories won with a vastly-reduced majority in recession conditions mainly because Neil Kinnock’s ‘nearly-new’ Labour failed to convince the electorate that they represented a viable alternative. Five years later, the outgoing Major administration left Tony Blair and Gordon Brown with a budget surplus at a time of unprecedented global economic growth. Having put the budget back on an even keel, Major lost, apparently, because he couldn’t drum up the necessary ‘feelgood factor.’ From 1997-2001, after a four year period of pretending to adhere to the ‘golden mean,’ Gordon set about taxing, spending and consequently wrecking the exchequor just in time for a global economic downturn.
With the stakes as high as they are, I predict that the 2010 percentage voter turnout will be as high as in 1997. It would require epic numbers of turkeys to vote for Christmas for the pink-tinged Cameronites to secure anything like a landslide on a Blairite scale, given that from 2001 to the present time, the much-trumpeted growth in UK jobs has been driven by the public sector, so whatever goes down, we are unlikely to see a landslide. But public sector workers will need to weigh up as to what degree the inevitable budget cuts which will follow the election will be more savage under the Tories than under Labour. Meanwhile, those in the private sector know that taxes will rise whoever sits astride the woolsack. They won’t vote Labour.
So I’ll stick my neck out and say that, despite the unconvincing Tory arguments, most voters are going to wake up on polling day, survey the mess and vote for anyone but Gordon. The Tories will win a reasonable working majority, show their true colours and set about vigorously dismantling New Labour’s constituency, the public sector, partly because of the imperative to reduce the obese deficit and partly because that’s what they are ideologically inclined to do. This will be a shame, since it employs a lot of hardworking people who work for the public good, who deserved better leadership than they got under the Great Helmsman.
Thus the next election, which should be about the environment, sustainability, public sector reform, a fairer society, education, training, infrastructure and health will be won by the Tories on the feelbad factor, and Britain’s half-assed stab at the Middle Way will be history.