21 MARCH 1992, Page 6


There are those who will tell you the next three weeks are important: do not believe them


The ranks of punditry cannot forbear to disagree that 'for the first time in ages the campaign will really matter'. It seems, to them, the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the equal standing of the two main parties in the polls with three weeks still to go. The pundits believe that the deluge of politics to come must, as in the last three elections, lead the nation to make a defi- nite choice on 9 April. That, they argue, is what campaigns are for.

However, the truth is that what will hap- pen in the next few weeks, and what has happened in the last few weeks, are unlike- ly to influence many votes. The campaigns that matter are not those launched after Mr Major's visit to the palace last week. They are those conducted by the Conservative party since the mid-1970s, when it started to proselytise about the benefits of private ownership, free markets and low taxation; and by Labour since 1983, when it began to distance itself from extremists and claim (with varying degrees of sincerity) that it was becoming a post-socialist party. On the evidence of the latest hostilities, and despite the opprobrious effects of Tory pol- icy on Britain in recent years, Mr Major and his men appear once more to be gain- ing ground in the struggle.

The campaign proper is a sham. One hopes its low point was reached last week- end, when the parties appeared to be invit- ing support on the basis that certain minor celebrities had pledged themselves to the respective causes. The Labour Party threat- ens to impoverish the middle classes, help complete the collapse of the residential property market, and rebuild a corporate state in Britain. Yet what is supposed to clinch the support of the telly-watching masses is that Mr Lenny Henry, Mr Stephen Fry and somebody called Mr Billy Bragg will be voting Labour. They are so obviously superior to Miss Cilla Black, Mr Ken Dodd (who, one imagines, has more than nwst to fear from Labour's tax poli- cies) ..nd Mr Jim Davidson — the Tory variety bill — that there seems no point in arguing any further. There would, indeed, be a happy symmetry if the 95 per cent of the public who think about political issues only once every five years were to be swayed by a group of 'celebrities' who prob- ably have equally well-formed views on these matters. The other 5 per cent of us, of course, know whom we want to win from our years of close and intensive study of the subject. So the parties should consider the job done, staunch their overdrafts now, and leave us in peace until a fortnight next Thursday.

One hesitates to quote Carlyle in defence of a point about the low quality results of universal suffrage, since even to the robust spirits of the mid-19th century he was something of a loony tune. But when one sees the tawdry devices that are being used to grab votes in this election, one realises that all the dangers about which the Sage of Chelsea warned (and even a few about which he did not) have come horribly to fruition. Carlyle could not even stomach the vote being given to non- freeholders, let alone to women. He would have had to be stretchered out of Cheyne Row if told that, one day, political parties hoped the artisan class would vote on the basis of the political inclinations of their favourite music-hall turns. 'But as to uni- versal suffrage,' roared the Sage in 1850, 'can it be proved that, since the beginning of the world, there was ever given a univer- sal vote in favour of the worthiest man or thing?' Or, if you prefer: 'It is the everlast- ing privilege of the foolish to be governed by the wise; to be guided in the right path by those who know it better than they. This is the first right of man.' And, finally, 'had we ballot-boxes clattering at every street corner, there were no remedy in these.' Now there was a man clearly ahead of his time, and with his prophetic eye focused sharply on March 1992.

Similarly, the event that (despite their five-point poll lead) may yet lose Labour the election was a culmination of several years' debate, both inside and outside the party. Mr John Smith's alternative budget was the greatest gift the Tories can hope to have between now and the election, short of Mr Kinnock swapping fraternal greetings with Jean-Marie Le Pen. As one of the more demotic members of Her Majesty's Government put it to me, Labour's tax pol- icy 'sticks it right up three million middle- class voters who Labour need'.

Middle management is finding it hard enough to pay the mortgage already. Expropriate another 9p in the pound over £20,000 for increased National Insurance contributions in parts of the country where £20,000 a year will not even get you on to the housing ladder, and you can kiss good- bye to votes. Paradoxically, it is only because the Conservatives have presided over such high mortgage rates, and a slump in the property market, that their warnings about Labour can be so effective. It may be dodgy politics to say so, but it is a fact that if Labour 'sticks it right up' middle man- agement it will undermine property prices across the south-east still further. In effect, the Tory message will be: 'You know how bad things have been under us. Elect our opponents and we guarantee they will be even worse. The house you can only just afford to pay for after our economic disas- ter will be repossessed after Labour's.'

Labour had to win seats in the home counties and London to have any hope of forming a Government. Now it doesn't have a prayer. Not even all the extra income tax that would be so willingly paid by Mr Stephen Fry, Mr Lenny Henry and somebody called Mr Billy Bragg would be enough to bribe the struggling owner-occu- piers of south-east England to vote for self- inflicted penury. When the bailiffs arrive it will be little comfort to the televiewers of Stevenage, Harlow and Croydon that their favourite celebrities advised them to vote Labour. So they will vote according to the instincts they have had since 1979.

In the week since the election was called, one has felt the first rumblings of the flight back to the traditional attitude that won the Tory party the elections of 1979, 1983 and 1987. The electorate no longer believes, as it might have done in 1923 or 1945, that it should vote for redistribution of income. It believes in voting for preservation of income, because (even in this recession) so many more voters have an income worthy to be preserved. That is why no one has detected the 'time for a change' feeling in this country, despite an understandable desire to punish the Tories for failing to maximise the material propserity Mrs Thatcher trained the voters to want.

All this was clear before the campaign, and it will be clear at the end of it. The next three weeks will merely contain the ritual attempts to play the ultimate confidence trick. The campaign should not be accord- ed any greater significance than that. And, at the end, those given a share in prosperity since 1979 will do what (if they had thought about it properly) they knew in their hearts they were going to do all along. They will vote Tory.