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…