George Osborne and Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Manchester in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories are taking the morality war to the enemy

Cameron, Duncan Smith, Gove and Osborne are sincere in their desire for social emancipation. They must now find the words to express it. 

Now that the Great Recession is over, the Cameroons are returning to their radical roots. George Osborne recently spoke in favour of full employment. Just about every senior Tory is keen to address social mobility. A strategy is emerging. The Tories are determined to take the morality war to the enemy.

The modern economy has eroded Labour’s moral capital. The Marxists claimed that the rich drew their wealth from the surplus value created by manual labour. The Labour movement certainly drew much of its political capital from manual labour. If you examine Labour propaganda at least until the fifties, a lot of it is based on the injustice of workers toiling to support the idle rich. Those days are over. Bertie Wooster was abolished by the Second World War and post-war taxation.

British politics would look different if Alan Johnson were leading the Labour Party. He could still get a song out of the old tunes. But you cannot proclaim the glory of manual labour and the moral superiority of the proletariat from the coalfields of Hampstead or the steelworks of Kentish Town.

So why has the Tories’ moral deficiency appeared so insuperable? To some extent, it was Margaret Thatcher’s fault. That might seem paradoxical. In health, education and welfare, she did nothing to dismantle the architecture of a social democratic state. Those programmes were allowed to share in the proceeds of growth. She was accused of "cuts", yet there never were any cuts. Even so, the charge was not wholly unfair. Her political body language signalled a desire for cuts. She gave the continuous impression that Thatcher’s Britain was for the striving, the sharp-elbowed and the successful; no one else need apply.

Mrs Thatcher was often cloth-eared when it came to language, otherwise she would never have said that there was no such thing as society. Her injudicious comment drew attention to one of Thatcherism’s intellectual weaknesses: it had no theory of the state. Although Tories have never believed that the state should merely be anarchy plus the constable, the Lady came perilously close to validating that caricature, and to giving the impression that for her, the state was defence, the police and an unprivatisable residuum. Equally, she did nothing to reform either state education or welfare, which drifted along in a pre-Thatcherite sleepy hollow.

False impressions and linguistic slips did not matter as long as Labour was led by Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock. But when the party came up with a leader who was salonfähig in the living-rooms of middle England, the cuts legacy was toxic. Labour claimed that the Tories could not be trusted with the services on which ordinary families depend. Only Labour would defend them - without putting up taxes. It was a formidable platform.

During the Blair years, the Tory party often consulted focus groups and always depressed itself. Asked to draw a Labour politician, the groupers would come up with a slim chap in a dark blue suit talking into a mobile: very modern-looking. A Tory would be depicted as fat, in green wellies and tweeds, very unmodern-looking. So the Cameroons decided to tackle all this. As they had no intention of cutting the NHS, as David Cameron had spent night after night in Great Ormond Street hospital at his child’s bedside, they would proclaim their support for the NHS and for all public services. It helped that Mr Cameron and his team believed in social generosity and were determined to remove the obstacles to social mobility.

It also helped that the right spokesmen were in place. There is no more passionate believer in using education to bring opportunity to the poorest households than Michael Gove. At moments, in his intense desire to tear down the barriers to social mobility, Mr Gove can sound like a leftie.

In the Fifties, reviewing Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, Roy Jenkins wrote that to him, socialism meant the relief of distress and poverty plus the removal of class barriers. The Cameroons would reply that they too are interested in those goals, which they can accomplish far more easily, because they do not have to deal with other socialist baggage, or the belief that the answers to social questions always involve a larger state.

The "big society" was an unfortunate phrase; it sounds sinister and Orwellian. If only the Great Society had still been available. But Cameronian conservatism is about social empowerment. This is most apparent in health and education. In the long run, it will also be true in welfare. That might seem a strange claim. How do you empower people by reducing their entitlements? There is a simple answer. Over the past few decades, the welfare state has increasingly lost its way. We have created an ill-fare state, in the form of a welfare aristocracy: families who believe that they have a hereditary entitlement to unemployment benefit. The greatest argument against promiscuous welfare is not the waste of money. It is the waste of people.

The Cameroons will have to deal with the charge of hypocrisy: that they are rich men who are pretending to be interested in the less well-off merely in order to defend their own interests. That should not be hard for them, for two reasons. First, most voters do not share Ed Miliband’s inherited enthusiasm for class warfare. Second, it is not true. Messrs Cameron, Duncan Smith, Gove and Osborne are sincere in their desire for social emancipation. They must now find the words to express it. 

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.