Public sector workers have been spooked by Cameron’s tough talk, and their change of heart explains his recent misfortuneby Anne McElvoy / March 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Could it be the public sector wot loses it for the Tories? The party’s internal research now strongly suggests as much, as does Labour’s. It is the territory that tense strategists are fighting over in the last crucial pre-campaign weeks. For whichever way you look at the polls, Tory voting intentions have slipped from their previous confident high. The voting groups causing most anxiety in David Cameron’s Millbank base are many of the same people it persuaded to take a new look: lower middle-income voters in the public sector.
It’s one reason Cameron opted for those supersize-me posters in January, guaranteeing that his purpose in life was not to take secateurs to the NHS. In his ITV interview in mid-March he explained that he wanted to make “a personal statement”—though he didn’t reveal why. Central office sources tell me that the Cameron-Osborne team had been surprised how quickly uncertainty over the Tory economic message had translated into a dip in the party’s appeal to the public sector, and particularly NHS support. Hence: “I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS.” This reminded me of a spouse suddenly announcing “I won’t be unfaithful”—it has precisely the opposite effect to the one intended. “Take a giant picture of the Tory leader and put it next to ‘cuts’ and ‘NHS,’” mocks a Labour spin doctor, “not clever.”
A centre-left government should be on home territory here. Yet Labour has also had its health wobbles: remember Patricia Hewitt’s bloodying by the Royal College of Nursing in 2006, when she was booed and catcalled after embracing hospital reforms too enthusiastically. Her successor Alan Johnson did markedly little in his time at health, apart from, as one ally puts it, “calming things down and cheering people up.” Even so, only last July polls suggested Labour was shedding public sector support.
The tide began to turn with George Osborne’s speech to the 2009 party conference, pledging wage freezes from 2011. This first open exposition from the Tory hawks spooked the large parts of the country that are on the public payroll, and drove a fair few renegades back to Labour. Shortly after, I visited two friends in the northeast who had peeled away from new Labour. One, who had left the party out of a dislike of Blairism (topped off by the effrontery of Iraq), was now back in his local party and out leafleting. As a local authority employee, he reasoned, it was a case of better the devil you know. The other was annoyed with Labour over civil liberties, but fearful that once a Tory government got the taste for cuts, it would turn on the NHS, whatever its pledges.
Tories reply with some justification that where they have led in the economic debate, the government has followed. Gordon Brown is promising a pay freeze for senior public servants—but there is a deliberate difference of emphasis. His freeze affects upper middle-class professionals, such as judges. Osborne’s suggested freeze for all public servants on more than £18,000 hits every category of NHS nurse apart from the least skilled.
Honesty may be the best policy—one way or the other, spending reductions are coming. The problem is that Cameron has yet to establish enough familiarity with his target audience to reap credit for frankness. Changing preconceptions is grinding work. Camp Cameron is learning the hard way that old suspicions don’t die, they break out in new places. And really, modern Conservatives exist to reform the public sector and to battle entrenched interests. That is the point of them, and a good reason for a periodic change from a centre-left to a centre-right government. It is also the reason they have looked much more surefooted since the BA strike threw the focus back onto Labour’s union links. Unite is truly a liability to Brown’s resurrection—but the row is also a sign of the deep divide in the country over public sector cuts and their impact.
Michael Gove talks loftily of the “post-bureaucratic age.” That’s still an idea in its infancy. Starting one’s own workplace co-operative (George Osborne’s pet project ) is not a widespread ambition—not least because few people know what it means. The same goes for plans to set up schools outside LEA control. An excellent idea, but not the same as reassuring the majority of parents who want improvement in classrooms delivered by someone else, rather than becoming heroic social entrepreneurs themselves.
YouGov pollster Peter Kellner notes that the gap between the parties among public sector voters remains large—17 per cent, despite the opposition’s blandishments. Indeed, so many people are on the state payroll either directly or at one remove (think of all those IT jobs and contracted-out services) that the post-bureaucratic age sounds more like a threat than a promise. Shortly after he was elected leader, Cameron set out to win over such state employees. “Our tone has too often suggested that we’re saying ‘there are too many of you and you’re not working hard enough.’” But what does the tone say now? Be afraid, be very afraid.
For ideas on how to cut public spending see Prospect’s feature on how to save £100bn