Monday, October 20, 2008

Chart toppers

Right, sorry I was away for so long. The intrusions of real life are an annoyance I have only moderate success in warding off.

So, right, first of all - New Labour does not have 'a problem with the white working class', as their psephologists keep claiming (this perception probably explains Phil Woolas' recent imitation of Brown's 'British Jobs for British Workers' schtick - itself an adaptation of an old National Front slogan). But it may have a problem with skilled labour. The one segment of the population that still gives the government a lead in the polls is that named by pollsters as social class DE: among this class are lower income workers, as well as those who rely heavily on the public sector and on welfare. It is the C2 group, comprising skilled manual workers who are almost as likely as AB voters to support the Tories in the election. In fact, one of the latest polls suggests that of this group 37% is preparing to vote Tory, while only 35% of AB voters are. This is, however, an outlier: the trend is for AB voters to be far more pro-Tory than any other group, and even they rarely go above 40%. About a third of skilled workers are going to vote Tory - it is just that the rest of them either aren't going to vote for New Labour, or are unable to say who they will vote for. I would hazard a guess that among this layer are large numbers of unionised workers who have contributed significant sums to Labour, only to have the government kick them in the teeth.

The second problem for New Labour is that although the Tory lead has been cut to single figures by the economic crisis, its lead is highest among those most likely to vote. Tory voters are motivated (by tax breaks among other things), while Labour voters are not. If people were legally obliged to vote, an interesting thing happens: Labour comes first in all groups except for AB, the Lib Dems second (except for AB who put them first), the Tories come third, and the Greens fourth - albeit, the validity of this result is put in doubt by the number of people who refused to answer the question. The third problem for New Labour is one that has previously benefited the government: one can win an election and form a government in this country despite clearly lacking the support of a majority of people. The Tories only require a relatively low turnout and a plurality of the vote, perhaps not more than 35%, to gain enough seats to govern - particularly since they are ahead in the 'marginals' by over 10%.

The last ten years of New Labour's electoral success has been an anomaly in one crucial respect: usually, Labour does well when the working class is strong and militant. This was the case in 1923-4, 1945, 1964, 1966, 1974, and 1976. It was manifestly not the case in 1997 and, despite a gradual and episodic resurgence of militancy (with increasing numbers of successes, I might add), it hasn't really been the case so far. It is nonetheless a weird period. Despite the fact that we are not experiencing an upturn, it is not obvious that the Tories are benefiting from a generalised ideological turn to the right. There are a number of issues on which the Tories can campaign on from the right, but these are the issues on which they have always campaigned from the right, often with little success. The Tories' attempt to belabour the government over its supposedly inadequate support for companies in the crisis is equally indicative of their likely premature exhaustion once in power. After all these are the people who have recently been telling anyone who will listen that they are not as wedded to big money as New Labour. The Tories don't have a compelling alternative so much as a pot-pourri of pleasing signals and gestures. They have the air of a slightly too mature boy band, all bemused strutting and choreography. Presumably, this is supposed to be an imitation of Blair, but if that is the case - if, in fact, the formula of triangulation has become the master-concept of electoral strategy in the new century, then this merely underlines the rapidity which party identity and its associated range of fairly consistent ideological outlooks is breaking down - and how insulated the preparation and implementation of policy increasingly is from popular will.