Tuesday, 27 March 2012

How can we turn the tide against the party of the rich?

Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian
The latest opinion poll in the Independent is very good news. It suggests a bigger gap - Labour on 43%, Tories on 33% - than pretty much any previous polls since the formation of this government in May 2010 (see the BBC's poll tracker here).

I'm always wary of reading too much into any individual poll: there are inevitably fluctuations and variations. But this one is broadly supported by other polls in the last few days, which show a clear Labour lead if not to quite the same degree.

It is also reinforced by specific findings, which also provide insight into why this is happening. Most tellingly, over two thirds regard the Tories as "the party of the rich".

Then there is the curious detail about the difference between respondents polled before or after the cash for access story emerged. Roughly half were polled before the revelations that Peter Cruddas, forced to resign as a Conservative party vice treasurer, was offering wealthy would-be donors access to the PM. Among those polled pre-Crudgate the Labour lead was 4%. From the sample of those polled just after the revelations, the gap is a whopping 17%.

This makes it abundantly clear that the scandal is very bad news for the Tories. Nothing has previously dented their poll ratings to the same extent - not even last July's hacking scandal and the light it shone on Andy Coulson and his role in Downing Street. It won't help that it recalls the sleaze which dogged John Major's unpopular government in the mid-1990s. It also has the hallmarks of an unfolding scandal, with more embarrassing revelations emerging every day, so Tories would be naive to assume it will go away.

It also means we should be cautious with the forecasts. That kind of lead may be a short-term blip based on current headlines, soon to be re-stabilised. Then again, it may not. Sunny Hundal predicts it will settle into a 7-8 point lead for the longer term, which seems plausible.

John Harris wrote an article - after the revelations about Cruddas, before the new poll - which suggested we may have reached a turning point in Tory fortunes. The core of his argument was that the Cruddas news hadn't emerged in a vacuum but in the aftermath of a 'budget for the rich', thus making it appear politically signifcant - part of a wider pattern - not merely an aberration.

Harris observes that 'questions bound up with wealth, privilege and a disquiet about Cameron and George Osborne have been building for months, were heightened by the budget and now threaten to turn critical.'

So the latest dodgy dealing looks to wide layers of people suspiciously like more evidence that the Tories are loyal servants of the super-rich. It is therefore the double whammy of cutting the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p - a PR disaster for George Osborne - and the cash for access revelations that is so damaging.

Class and inequality appear to be at core of the Tories' predicament. John Harris writes of:

'a deep identification with moneyed arrogance, made worse by all those claims of shared sacrifice being contradicted by just about everything they do. In the public mind the dots implied by the Cruddas story will surely be joined in an instant: "If you are unhappy about something ... we'll listen to you, and we'll put it into the policy committee at No 10," he said, which conjures up the image of disaffected 50p payers having a few quiet words and coming away happy.'

This has always been a bankers' coalition, a government of the rich and for the rich, serving the City not the wider country. It makes a mockery of democracy. But for the Tories to govern with a degree of popular consent it must appear otherwise. They have so far depended on a wide layer of voters largely accepting certain key myths about the deficit and the economy.

But for people to accept such myths, two things are required: they need to trust both the message and the messenger. If the Tories are nakedly exposed as doing favours for their wealthy friends, it discredits the messenger. And this, in turn, can make people much less receptive to the message.

The relative weakness of this government also depends on the relative strength or weakness of the opposition - both inside and outside of parliament. When the coalition has appeared strong, it has often in fact been more fragile than might be superficially apparent. What has lent it an appearance of strength has been the lack of effective opposition.

In January, immediately after Eds Miliband and Balls announced 'acceptance' of the Tory cuts agenda, polls showed the main parties neck and neck, or even a slight Tory lead. Labour's capitulation was unpopular and allowed Tory ministers to take the offensive and - as the most committed proponents of a cross-party orthodoxy - appear strong and authoritative. Why opt for a lukewarm version when you can have the real thing?

When the opposition has actually opposed it has fared better (although rises in Labour support have tended, above all, to be negative reactions to the Tories and Lib Dems). This was true in October-November 2010 when Labour's opposition to the VAT hike and higher tuition fees (however lukewarm) appears to have been linked to a shift in the polls. That far-too-mild parliamentary opposition was supplemented by the student movement on the streets, breaking apart the myth that people wouldn't mobilise to stop cuts - and therefore eroding the appearance of inevitability around austerity.

It was true again in the aftermath of the 26 March 2011 anti-cuts demonstration, when Labour support in some polls peaked. And it seems to be true now, with Labour opposing the unpopular Health and Social Care Bill then tearing into Osborne's budget. Miliband's Commons speech last Wednesday was the best I've heard him give. This is not a great compliment admittedly, but still notable.

This defies the Blairite logic which still casts a huge shadow: that Labour must push to the right in pursuit of 'electability'. Opposition to privatisation of the NHS and strong rhetoric about a 'budget for the millionaires, not the millions' have helped turn things around, though they haven’t been as important as the coalition parties’ own arrogant self-destructive behaviour.

Even Mark Ferguson at Labour List admits, ‘We must accept, if we are being at all honest and realistic, that any polling bump that Labour has received is due almost entirely to a negative reaction to the Tories, rather than a positive reaction to us.’

For the anti-cuts movement, however, more is required. Strong Labour poll leads - plus any shifts in our direction in surveys about public attitudes to cuts - are welcome news. But they won't stop the cuts. The challenge is to connect with the popular mood and exploit the coalition government's vulnerability in building a movement beyond Westminster.

We know from experience that Labour's leadership is utterly unreliable, and could still screw up their current good fortune. This has a deep material basis: the economic crisis shrinks the space available for progressive reforms, so Labour is reduced to bartering over the details of austerity. The only way out of that impasse is through a willingness to confront the dictatorship of finance capital - something Balls and Miliband are not willing to consider.

The alternatives are clear. Tax the rich more and pursue the tax scroungers who avoid paying it. Invest in jobs, homes and transport - creating jobs is good for economic recovery. Drop the debt owed to the banks - this is the kind of jubilee we really need in 2012 - and bring the banks and financial institutions under democratic control.

In building the combativity of our side, we should take encouragement from the cracks and tensions on their side. We should be determined in opposing them where they are weak - most obviously the NHS. Crucially, we need to rise to the challenge of opposing central government by mobilising at national level.

Yesterday was the 1st anniversary of a march by half a million people, yet the TUC has failed to follow it up with any further national mobilisations. Last November saw a similar number on the streets - across the country - as the most visible expression of the biggest strike for generations. We know what the anti-cuts movement and trade unions are capable of.

At a time of increasing vulnerability on their side, we need to use our collective power - on the streets and in workplaces - to crack this bankers' coalition.

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