By Stephen MacAvoy
The narrowing of the Tory lead in the opinion polls over recent months underlines that the outcome of the next election is not certain. The political implications are clear: a shift by Labour to policies that motivate the overwhelming majority of the population threatened by the Tories’ planned harsh economic policies could prevent a Conservative government.
Despite the backdrop of a deep economic downturn and strong backing from most of the press amongst other factors, the Conservatives are still only polling on average at around 40 per cent (see UK Polling Report 28 December).
When the Conservative Party last won a general election, in 1992, it did so with just under 42% of the vote, indicating that the David Cameron has, at best, restored the Conservatives to the levels of support achieved by the unpopular John Major administration. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of recent opinion polls show the Tories falling below even this low level of support: for example three-quarters of the polls taken since the Conservative Party conference in October give them less than 42%. There is, therefore, no enthusiasm for the Tories.
Unsurprisingly, support for the Tories has diminished as they have made it clear – with Cameron’s warning of “an age of austerity” and George Osborne’s draconian cuts proposals – that they will ruthlessly carry out capitalism’s demands for the working class to pay for the economic crisis.
Despite this unpopular economic message, the Tories maintain a lead in the polls due to the right wing and unpopular policies that Labour has pursued in government that have alienated significant elements amongst its former supporters. Additionally Labour’s current economic framework is incapable of restoring previous levels of economic prosperity. The Tory lead, therefore, is not due to a high level of Conservative support but a low level of support for Labour. The fall in the Tory support in the opinion polls since the autumn has seen no corresponding increase in Labour’s support.
A sharp shift in Labour’s policy could start to turn this situation around. With the economy currently the key issue dominating politics, and likely to remain so until the general election, the priority for Labour must be to outline popular policies that can restore economic growth and provide an alternative to the cuts agenda currently proposed to various degrees by all the main parties – this cuts agenda would hit Labour supporters hardest.
The Blairite tendency (Peter Mandelson etc) would have Labour move rightwards, with a greater burden placed on the poorer sections of society, which would further undermine Labour support. Press reports indicate some Blairites want Labour to outline more cuts ahead of the election in order to appease the City (see here for example), whilst Blairite outrider Charles Clarke has called for the regressive policy of increasing VAT to 20% that would hit the poorest hardest. Such policies would reduce Labour’s electoral support – not increase it. In a similar vein Blairites, earlier this year, opposed the more progressive and popular measures announced in the budget in response to the economic crisis such as raising the highest rate of income tax to 50%.
That cutting public spending will not help restore economic growth and is also socially regressive has been outlined by numerous authors elsewhere (for example here and here). Cutting public services would be plainly and simply counterproductive. A progressive economic framework would prioritise measures that can restore economic growth – principally by raising the, currently collapsed, level of investment. Combined with other popular policies, including withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, such a shift in orientation would place Labour in the best position to fight the forthcoming election campaign.