Beleaguered Cameron could learn from Europe

Neil Clark: The Tories could take on immigration without being racist - and become economic patriots

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 16:29 ON Tue 9 Mar 2010

Where has it all gone wrong for David Cameron? Considering the desperate record of the present government, the outcome of this spring's general election should be a foregone conclusion. But instead, it's the Conservatives and not Labour who are in disarray as a series of polls show their lead continuing to shrink – culminating in today's Populus survey for the Times which suggests the two parties are neck and neck in 100 key marginals where Tory strategists expected to be well ahead.

What seemed unthinkable a few months back - the re-election of Gordon Brown and Labour - now seems distinctly possible.
The reason why Cameron has failed to capitalise on New Labour's unpopularity is simple. It's because on the issues which most concern the public, where anger with the government is at its greatest, the Conservative leader is singing from the same hymn sheet as Gordon Brown.
Cameron's Conservatives don't represent a break with the discredited policies adopted by all governments of the past 30 years, but a continuation of them. Fed up with privatisation? The Conservatives, in common with Labour, want even more of it. Under the Tories, the whole of the Royal Mail, not just part of it, will sold to the private sector. They've even mooted the possibility of selling the Met Office too. Privatised weathermen? What a vote winner that will be.
On foreign policy, an area where New Labour should be particularly vulnerable, the Conservatives once again simply offer more of the same.
While 64 per cent of Britons believe the war in Afghanistan to be unwinnable, and 63 per cent want troops home by Christmas, the Tories, like the Labour government, remain totally committed. Not only that but on the issue of Iran, they're even more bellicose than Labour, with the party's defence spokesman Liam Fox warning that "2010 is the year in which we will seriously have to confront Iran". Again, not a policy that's likely to have them rushing to vote Conservative in Croydon Central.
Where New Labour's unpopular policies have presented Cameron with an open goal he has routinely blasted the ball high over the crossbar.
Immigration is a good example. A recent YouGov poll found that 83 per cent of people in Labour-held marginal seats were "worried" about the population in Britain reaching 70m in 2029, with 49 per cent "very worried". Yet although Cameron has said he does not wish to see Britain's population rise to 70m, his line on immigration has up to now been strangely muted, perhaps because he fears that by talking too much about the subject he will be branded a racist.
The timidity of his approach shows that Cameron has failed to appreciate how the immigration debate has moved on from the days of Enoch Powell. England is now the most densely populated major country in Europe, with great repercussions on the quality of life of all its inhabitants, whatever their ethnic origin. By focusing on over-crowding, and not on issues of race, Cameron could address legitimate public concerns and reap the electoral benefit.
Instead of taking his cue from the Notting Hill set of Tory 'modernisers', who seem to think that the party only has to select plenty of 20-something, female and ethnic minority candidates to achieve success, Cameron would be better off looking across to the continent for clues as to how modern conservative parties can win elections.
In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party routed the Socialists in last year's European elections not by advocating the free market policies beloved by the British Conservatives, but by espousing classic Gaullist dirigiste solutions. Sarkozy, like Germany's Angela Merkel, another European conservative who doesn't know how to lose elections, are economic patriots, who proudly defend their countries flagship companies, and the jobs of their workers, against the predations of global capitalists.

A British Sarkozy would have fiercely attacked the government for allowing a historic company like Cadbury's to fall into foreign hands. David Cameron, by contrast, wedded to neo-liberal dogma, has ruled out a future Conservative government introducing a so-called 'Cadbury's Law' to prevent foreign takeovers of British companies. "Let's be frank. We are operating in a globalised economy and you can travel around the world and say to businesses that there is not an anti-globalisation party in Great Britain," he proudly boasted.
The great tragedy of British politics over the last 30 years is that we've been without a proper Labour party - dedicated to protecting working-class interests - and without a proper Conservative party - dedicated to protecting British industry and conserving the best of our country's traditions.
Instead, the two main parties have converged to such an extent that they are now virtually indistinguishable. To get people to go out and vote for him in this election, Cameron must convince Britons that he offers real, substantive change from the flawed policies of the past.
Otherwise he can hardly complain if we stay at home to mow our lawns - or decide that, faced with the choice between Tweedledum Gordon and Tweedledee Dave, we'll give Tweedledum another five years. ·