Fraser Nelson takes to the road and finds voters turning to whichever parties will maximise the mutiny against Blair and Brown. The SNP is now a party of protest, not separatism — but have the Tories done enough to stay on track for power?
When locals give chase in a deprived Glasgow housing estate, it is normally a signal to run. The woman who started coming towards the Scottish National Party campaigners I was with on Tuesday certainly seemed angry: perhaps we’d blocked her driveway, or sullied her carpet with separatist literature. But her gripe was with Labour. ‘I’m a nurse, and I’ve seen the Health Service really suffer under them,’ she said, demanding various SNP pamphlets. ‘I’m never voting for them again.’
There could be no more striking dramatisation of the collapse in Labour support ahead of the 3 May elections. This nurse embodied the Labour core vote. She was right in saying the NHS has grown worse: average waiting times for an operation are a fortnight longer than they were under Margaret Thatcher. But this is because the Labour administration has given so much of the extra money to staff, and shielded them from Tony Blair’s reforms. And instead of gratitude, it is facing insurrection.
Scotland has, for decades, been Labour’s most dependable stronghold. The party has prevailed in every single local and general election in the country for the last five decades. When John Reid is asked why there are so many Scots in the Cabinet, he explains that the party was pushed back to its heartlands in the 1980s, with the consequence that MPs of any experience tended to hail from the north, or the Celtic fringe.
Now these heartlands are ablaze, and Labour’s Judgment Day is at hand. In the north of England, the party’s vote is demoralised and the electorate generally is unconvinced, to put it mildly, that Gordon Brown would represent renewal. In the south, the areas which Tony Blair conquered in the mid-1990s are steadily turning blue again. So the battle in the last days before the May elections in Scotland, Wales and the English local authorities is not so much between Labour and the opposition parties — but a struggle between these parties for the vote which Labour has alienated all by itself.
Tony Blair may hope, in a last noble gesture, to shoulder the blame for Labour’s performance — but the problems raised on the doorsteps in Labour areas are not exclusively related to him. They are gripes about Iraq, the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, Mr Brown’s raid on pension funds and the stench of sleaze from the cash-for-honours investigation.
On the stump, one senses the voters reaching for the nearest and strongest stick with which to beat Labour. In the more deprived areas of the West Midlands and Yorkshire, for example, that stick is the BNP — or its offshoot, England First. But in Scotland, the anti-Labour forces appear to have united.
In a café in Govan, I approach a suntanned man in a suit who introduces himself as Gordon Anderson, a salesman, and announces that he is voting SNP for the first time. ‘I’ve had enough of the European Human Rights Act, of these prisoners claiming compensation because they go cold turkey in jail,’ he says. ‘The system is geared towards the criminal, not the public.’
It is hard to see what the pro-EU, left-leaning SNP would do to correct such failures. But Mr Anderson sees no other options. He is left cold by David Cameron — ‘he seems to go whatever way public opinion blows him’ — and the Conservatives, in any case, have such little presence on the ground that he did not consider them. He is against independence, but will vote SNP anyway. ‘When the referendum comes, I’ll vote against and so will everyone else.’
This is key to understanding the SNP revival. It has successfully decoupled itself from the issue of independence and Labour’s attempts to argue the contrary are falling as flat as William Hague’s ‘Keep the Pound’ campaign in 2001. On the ballot papers, where parties can describe themselves any way they like, the SNP will call itself ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’. Its pitch is not to destroy the Union but to replace Jack McConnell, Scotland’s First Minister, with a more able man. Mr Salmond’s party has simply become the convenient vehicle of the nationwide anti-Labour rebellion.
Meanwhile, in the village of Dawley in Shropshire, George Osborne is doing his best to persuade voters that the Conservatives should be their particular Labour-busters. The south of England is ready to believe so, but the north needs more convincing. In Gateshead, Knowsley, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, the Tories have no councillors at all, and in Sheffield, only two. As the shadow Chancellor speaks to local shopkeepers, the problem becomes apparent.
The stories they tell him are grimly familiar across town centres in England: anti-social behaviour, quickly mutating into criminality. Helen Avraam, who runs the Flying Fish, tells the shadow Chancellor how children robbed her chip shop. ‘They covered their faces with plastic bags and forgot to cut air holes, bless them, so they started hyperventilating,’ she says. The staff then gave chase, but the culprits were never caught. Her sister-in-law, who also runs a chip shop, was robbed at gunpoint. The streets, she says, grow more dangerous by the year.
She asks Mr Osborne to ‘please do something’. He asks her to vote Conservative. She smiles politely, and says she never discusses politics. We are all standing in a florist shop whose owner, Elsie Ryder, is more forthcoming. ‘I voted for Labour all my life, but never again,’ she says. She too cites the breakdown in law and order, but says she intends to abstain. ‘The not-voting party won’t help you,’ says Mr Osborne. She says her family have always been Labour: abstaining is as far as she is prepared to go.
On the journey to his next appointment (graffiti-removal at a playground) Mr Osborne is briefed on the party’s chances by Peter Forgeham, the local Tory chairman. ‘Labour is expecting a drubbing,’ he tells the shadow Chancellor. ‘But what that means for us isn’t quite clear.’ This is true nationally: politics has entered a state of deeply unpredictable flux. The electorate may be deserting Labour, but it has not yet shifted its allegiance decisively to David Cameron. An ICM poll in Wednesday’s Guardian showed that the Tory leader has an 11-point lead as the person voters think would be most likely to take Britain in the right direction and a six-point lead over Mr Brown as the man voters think has the most potential as PM. Yet the Chancellor still has a narrow lead over the Tory leader as the man believed most likely to take the right decisions when the going gets tough. The electorate’s indecision is palpable.
There will be 10,455 town hall seats contested in England in 312 councils, and forecasts suggest that Labour will lose about 600 seats and that the Conservatives will gain about the same. But this is a poor proxy for the general election, as the lion’s share of contests are in Tory-inclined areas. The Conservatives are defending 4,340 seats — almost twice as many as Labour and the Lib Dems. The real significance is how successfully Labour can retain its votes — and how many of those it loses the Conservatives can snatch.
A few months ago, when Stephen Pound was still working for Labour chairman Hazel Blears, I heard him impress on a Labour meeting the need to get every single supporter out to vote. He had finally persuaded his extended family to support Labour, he said, but two of his aunts have since died: ‘But never mind, we always have postal voting.’ It was a joke (one presumes), but it underlines a more serious point. Postal voting,
and its attendant shenanigans, will be a huge factor in these elections.
Ballot forms have been sent out, but there is already chaos with the computer counting system. So far, 100 councils have reported problems with the new software. South Bedfordshire council has realised, too late, that it bought the wrong computers to count the postal votes, and will scarcely have time to train staff even if it finds the right ones on time. All the ingredients are in place for a fiasco that could last days, with postal votes being counted manually. And what if there are there further allegations of fraud, of the sort that dogged Birmingham Council three years ago?
The Conservatives have spent millions on their own computer system, which is making its debut in this election campaign. Francis Maude, the Tory chairman, has lined up a greater number of candidates than Labour (who are, he says, contesting only 60 per cent of the seats) and believes the party is better placed than ever to reach its target voters. But my final election stop, around the Lake District with the Lib Dems, illustrates the limits of such hi-tech sophistication.
I’m met at the station by Peter Thornton, a bearded Lib Dem councillor dressed in a woollen tie and Barbour jacket who is full of stories about the Conservatives’ failure to gather local intelligence. He shows me a pamphlet put out for Wendy Barry, a Tory candidate, who is described as a ‘he’ throughout the leaflet. ‘Look at their poster’ — we drive past a half-blue, half-green Conservative banner which has sprouted from a farmer’s field. ‘A camouflaged election placard. Only the Tories would think of that.’
Our first stop is to meet Cath Laddis, a farmer’s wife, who says she will vote Lib Dem because she is pleased with Tim Farron, the local MP, who unseated Tim Collins at the last election. ‘Tim [Farron] spent 45 minutes playing football with my kids,’ she says. ‘Most politicians would kick a ball and be gone.’ I ask what she thinks of Sir Menzies Campbell. ‘Who’s he?’ she asks, and seems utterly disinterested when I tell her.
It was the same story on other farms we visited. There is no shortage of hatred of Labour (one breeder of Texel sheep suggested Mr Blair should be ‘taken to the Tower’), but they accuse Tories of the same kind of complacency in their rural seats which Labour is being found guilty of in Scotland.
It is a sign that the Lib Dems — uniquely in Westminster — are stronger locally than they are centrally. ‘They’re like ants,’ one Conservative MP tells me. ‘They get everywhere. And I hate to say they are holding up against us very well in rural seats. They seem to have a message, and too many of our councils just don’t.’ Mr Cameron’s ‘vote blue, go green’ slogan is designed to woo the Lib Dems — what the party calls a ‘love bomb’. It makes much strategic sense. But the lesson from the Lake District is that party infrastructure is no less important. Your message is irrelevant if you don’t have a good delivery system.
To be fair, the Conservatives are only too aware of this. On the train to Shropshire, Mr Osborne laid out the land. Labour will surrender its Westminster majority if it loses seats in the south, which looks likely. But for the Conservatives to win outright, a much higher hurdle needs to be cleared. The Tory party must also win in the north, and bag the 19 marginal seats in West Yorkshire. To do this, it must first establish a presence in these constituencies. And contesting council seats it once left abandoned is the first step in a recovery process which has a long way to go.
But if the Tories are not yet winning the north, Mr Osborne can at least take comfort from the fact that Labour is definitely losing it. The Yorkshire Post had this to say in an editorial: ‘If the Tories fail to capitalise on disillusionment with the Blair government, they will not only let themselves down but an electorate crying out for change.’ Indeed. The appetite for change is there, and it is growing: the only question is who will profit from it. That seems certain to be the main political story of the next few years. But the narrative for next week’s elections is simply one of Labour implosion.