Left must deal with the new Chingford Polecat

Neil Clark: The Archbishop and Labour MPs may be angry, but IDS has White Van Man on his side

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 07:35 ON Mon 8 Nov 2010

In my copy of Birds and Wild Animals by H Trevor Jones, the polecat is described as "a furtive hunter, now rare, but still found in the Welsh mountains".
 
Since the book was published in the 1952, it seems that Mustela putorius putorius has moved eastwards - and seems particularly fond of a town on the Essex/London border called Chingford.
 
The original 'Chingford Polecat', first sighted in the 1970s, was, of course, Norman 'On yer bike' Tebbit, the abrasive working-class Tory cabinet minister who introduced legislation curbing the trade unions and who castigated the work-shy.
 
Today's Chingford Polecat is Iain-Duncan Smith, who took over Tebbit's seat at the April 1992 general election. The former 'quiet man' of British politics, IDS is now Work and Pensions Secretary and sinking his fangs into the long-term unemployed.
 
IDS's plan, leaked over the weekend, is that those deemed to have lost the work ethic will have to do unpaid work for the community for 30 hours a week or risk having their £65-a-week Jobseeker's Allowance stopped for at least three months.

The proposal has already been condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Labour MPs and trade unionists as harsh and unfair and even a form of slave labour.

The plan, complete with Duncan Smith's  "Play ball or it's going to be difficult" accompanying message, is pure Polecat Politics. But that doesn't mean that it won't be a vote winner.
 
The original Chingford Polecat's aggression towards trade union radicals and those he considered to be work-shy may have appalled traditional upper-class one-nation Tories and those on the left, but it struck a chord with Tebbit's upwardly-mobile Essex constituents.

Although coming from working-class backgrounds themselves, they had, in the words of Dr Peter Dorey of Cardiff University, "little political sympathy for those who remained poor or unemployed".

Norman Tebbit spoke in the language that ordinary people understood, and there's no doubt that, unpalatable as his views were to some, his Polecat Politics helped Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives win working-class votes in the south-east and dominate the political landscape in the 1980s.
 
The question that David Cameron will no doubt be asking himself is whether the new Chingford Polecat will prove as big an electoral asset to the Tories today.

IDS, unlike Tebbit, does not come from a working-class background. It's one thing for a self-made man from north London to relate how his father "got on his bike" to look for work; it's quite another when the Sandhurst-educated son of an RAF group captain exhorts (in a posh, upper-middle class voice) the unemployed of Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales to get on a bus to Cardiff to try and find work there, as IDS did recently.
 
But while IDS might never be able to strike the same chord with White Van Man that Tebbit did, it would be a big mistake for Labour - or the left in general - to underestimate him or his appeal.

There is, rightly or wrongly, a widespread feeling among many working-class voters that too many people in Britain are on the take, preferring to live off benefits rather than do an honest day's work.

IDS's strategy is to exploit this resentment, and to deflect people's anger away from the bankers and financial speculators who have caused our current economic predicament, and towards the benefit scroungers and the work-shy.

The best way the left can respond is not to defend a system where around 8m Britons of working age are economically inactive , but instead support a policy of full employment, with the aim of getting every able-bodied person of working age back into paid jobs.
 
IDS's commitment to free-trade and globalisation means that he'll never be able to get 8m Britons back to meaningful work. That is his Achilles heel. And if they're smart, the political polecats of the left - if there are any - will be getting ready to sink their fangs into it. ·