British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants voters to think about one politician in the election in two days, and it’s not him.
Twenty years after she left office, it’s Margaret Thatcher who features more than anyone else in Labour advertising. In swing districts, Brown invokes her spending cuts to remind voters why they turned against the Conservatives in the 1990s.
Labour’s effort to tie Conservative leader David Cameron to Thatcher’s legacy may help explain why he has been unable to widen his lead over Brown, who polls show may win Labour’s smallest share of the vote since 1983 in the May 6 election. The result may be a hung Parliament, where no party wins a majority, unsettling investors concerned that such a government may be too weak to cut a record budget deficit.
“Labour is banging the drum that the Conservatives haven’t changed,” said Philip Norton, author of “The Conservative Party” and professor of politics at Hull University. “Thatcher was a divisive figure.”
A ComRes Ltd. poll for ITV News and the Independent newspaper last night showed Conservative support at 37 percent, Labour at 29 percent, and the Liberal Democrats at 26 percent. That would give the Conservatives 294 seats, 32 short of a majority in the House of Commons, Labour 251 seats and the Liberal Democrats 74, ComRes said. The polling company telephoned 1,024 voters on May 1 and 2.
A YouGov Plc poll for The Sun newspaper gave the Conservatives 35 percent support, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats both at 28 percent. That gives the Conservatives 277 seats, 15 more than Labour, according to the BBC’s seat calculator. YouGov questioned 1,455 people May 2 and yesterday. No margins of error were given for the polls.
A Crosby/Textor poll of swing districts for the Daily Telegraph suggested that the Conservatives might win 103 seats from Labour, though none from the Liberal Democrats. That’s short of the 117 districts they need to gain from other parties to ensure a majority.
Cameron’s challenge is greatest in the north of England and Scotland where Thatcher’s policies of public-sector privatizations and reducing the power of unions hit hardest. In Scotland, the Conservatives, also known as the Tories, won only one out of 59 Parliamentary seats in 2005. Labour took 40, and the Liberal Democrats 11.
“For me as a business owner, the Tories’ policies look slightly better, but I just have a mental hang-up about voting for them,” said Nik Wilson, 36, who runs a florist store in Edinburgh with his wife and voted Scottish National Party in the last election. “People just forget how things were.”
‘Remember the Tories’
Labour’s first television ad in Scotland was titled “Remember the Tories” and featured Thatcher’s image three times. In another Labour spot, starring the comedian Eddie Izzard, she’s the only politician mentioned.
It is not just in the north of the country where Labour, which has been in power for 13 years, sees Thatcher as a handicap for the opposition. Leaflets sent out by the party in London attack Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg for having made positive comments about Thatcher, 84, now known as Baroness Thatcher, who lives in the capital.
“The Tories haven’t changed,” says a Labour television ad that aired in Scotland. “They closed our mines, closed our steelworks and closed our factories.”
Cameron has spent the past 4 1/2 years since he became leader of his party trying to counter that, pledging to protect spending on the National Health Service, promote female, gay and ethnic-minority candidates, and repudiating Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.” The central plank of his campaign is something he calls “The Big Society.”
“To have spent any part of your adult life under Thatcher, you’d have to be 40 years old,” said David McLetchie, business manager for the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. “But she’s still conjured up as a demon figure. She ended up as a victim of her own rhetoric.”
Independent until it joined England to form the United Kingdom in 1707, Scotland still has its own legal system and prints its own version of the national currency, the pound. Like parts of northern England where the Conservatives also struggle, Scotland’s mining and industrial areas were devastated by Thatcher’s policies of selling state-run companies and breaking the grip of unions.
Scotland is also where the program that brought her down, called by its critics the “poll tax,” was tested in 1989. The policy of replacing property taxes with a per-person charge hurt the poorest and caused riots when it was brought to England a year later, leading the Conservatives to oust Thatcher and repeal the levy.
Scotland, Brown’s home, has voted Labour since 1945. Still, the Conservative vote fell to 16 percent in 2005 from 31 percent in 1979, when Thatcher was first elected.
A Progressive Scottish Opinion survey last week put Labour at 41 percent, the Scottish National Party at 22 percent, the Liberal Democrats at 21 percent and the Conservatives at 12 percent. The company surveyed 1,024 Scottish adults between April 20 and 26.
Cameron is campaigning in 11 Scottish districts this year, including Edinburgh South and the seat of Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, Edinburgh South West.
“There’s no sign of a Cameron bounce,” Labour’s Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy told reporters travelling with Brown to the central Scottish city of Stirling on April 27. “It’s in the bloodstream after what happened here last time. Most people here don’t think the Tory party’s changed.”
While Cameron has made some progress in changing this view, the Conservatives still have an uphill climb in Scotland, said Nicola McEwen, co-director of the Institute of Governance at Edinburgh University.
“Cameron’s no Thatcher, and they’re not hated up here in the way they used to be,” said McEwen. “In Scotland, a lot of people who by any objective measure are middle class will continue to identify themselves as working class. Those things run deep. The Conservatives don’t pick up those votes.”