Clement Attlee’s wife Violet was a staunch Conservative supporter. The most heart-rending note of condolence David Blunkett received when his guide dog Teddy died came from Margaret Thatcher. And it was Lord Tebbit, of all people, who took the trouble to praise Ed Balls for his magnanimity in defeat in the early hours of May 8.
It is still possible for grudging respect – even real affection – to transcend party affiliations within the environs of Westminster, but it is today all too rare a quality. MPs who had seen service in the Second World War had a much greater sense of perspective – in the face of a common enemy, unbreakable bonds had been formed between Socialists and Tories – but, since then, the business of politics has become depressingly tribal, if not downright petty and mean-spirited.
Blame it if you like on the emergence of the professional political classes – people who have held no jobs outside of politics and whose salaries and careers depend entirely on adherence to party lines on every issue – but it is quite clear that this degree of obsessive single-mindedness in the modern House of Commons by no means reflects the character of the electorate.
For that matter, I doubt if the country’s two most politically partisan “red top” newspapers – the Mirror and the Sun – can be said to talk for their readers, either, certainly not at all times, on every subject. Indeed, a Mirror journalist confided in me that her paper’s internal market research had shown how many of the paper’s readers were Ukip supporters. Stephen Glover, the media pundit, retailed an interesting statistic the other day based on a YouGov poll: the Daily Mail happens to have 464,000 Labour voters among its readers.
Even the most tribal MPs at Westminster must quietly have to concede that a whole succession of issues – like the Iraq war, the police’s handling of the Jean Charles De Menezes affair, not to mention Gordon Brown’s strident call for “British jobs for British workers” – have all in their different ways challenged the old certainties and perhaps made a nonsense of them. Just as Chekhov said that no individual can ever be seen in terms of black and white, but only, at best, varying shades of grey, so, too, few, if any, of the people MPs represent these days can be categorised as being either perpetually red or blue.
So one can see why David Cameron is reviving the idea of “One Nation” Conservatism – he wants to lead a party that champions not just its own interests, but the whole country’s. This makes sense politically as well as emotionally. I think now more than ever that the Conservative Party – brought to office with 36.9 per cent of the electorate behind us – must reach out to Labour voters. Her Majesty’s Opposition, now seeking a new leader to succeed Ed Miliband, is plainly struggling to re-connect with popular public opinion.
Labour seemed to be aware during the last election that a lot of their policies were unpopular – certainly for anyone who wanted to improve his or her lot in life – but they were arrogant enough to believe that their brand was sufficiently strong that people would vote for them anyway. They were like an old-fashioned department store obliviously restocking their shelves with the same old lines that people had stopped buying at least a decade ago.
A party that was more responsive would have seen how the people they could normally count on for support had changed. The old moulds had been broken. I spoke on doorsteps in my own constituency during the last election to traditional Labour voters who did not believe, for instance, in increasing the national debt, who were not uncritical friends of the NHS, who had concerns about what they saw as a benefits culture that made laziness an all too easy option, and who wanted for themselves simply to get on in life without the State telling them peremptorily what to do. These were the people to whom Miliband had made absolutely no concessions.
These people often possessed a view that must have appeared equally counter-intuitive to the Labour strategists on immigration. Gillian Duffy, the Labour voter from Rochdale, raised this issue in a way that was measured and reasonable when Gordon Brown so memorably encountered him during the 2010 general election campaign. Ed Miliband’s inner circle was adamant, however, that nobody like Mrs Duffy should be allowed within a hundred miles of their man during the last campaign, a fact that I would contend showed to what extent they were in denial about what a lot of their core voters were thinking. These were the ones who believed, too, that their party had a Teflon coating that would make it completely resistant to Ukip on polling day: how wrong they turned out to be.
I believe therefore that the Prime Minister has a historic opportunity to embrace all those people who are, at least for now, out of sync with Labour and effectively disenfranchised – thoughtful, decent, patriotic citizens whose over-riding wish is to see the country run with compassion and humanity, but who reserve the right to think for themselves and reckon we can all do a lot more good in the world if we have money in our pockets. These are the people who have always been true to their own lights and have never lost their way. It’s not their fault that, for the time being at least, their party has.