Tories seem on way out but Labour must offer message of hope amid warnings of toxic general election ahead
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The next general election will be the most unpleasant and divisive of our lifetime, according to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham. The Tories will promote culture wars for all their worth and "make it as toxic as they can", he told a Fringe event last week.
His prediction comes as polls continue to suggest Labour is set fair to win the election, which is most likely to be in the autumn of next year. Pundits say voters are not necessarily bowled over by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer but have decided it's time for a change. The Tories have been in power, one way or another, since 2010. Their record includes not only David Cameron losing the 2016 Brexit referendum and the prolonged stalemate under Theresa May, but also Boris Johnson's chaotic three-year reign, with the shame of Partygate, and the disastrous tax-cutting experiment of Liz Truss.
The signs that the Tories are on the way out are already there, most recently in the by-election defeats to Labour and the Lib Dems in the previously safe seats of Selby and Somerton & Frome. And just in case anyone needed a reminder of the splits in the Tory party ahead of politicians returning to Westminster and Holyrood next week, Boris Johnson devotee Nadine Dorries popped up with a scathing attack on Rishi Sunak, accusing the Prime Minister of abandoning "the fundamental principles of Conservatism" and presiding over a "zombie parliament".
Ms Dorries has now finally resigned her Commons seat – two and a half months after promising to do so – thus forcing another potentially damaging by-election on her party. And new polling published this week suggests at least five Cabinet ministers and several other well-known Tory MPs are likely to lose their seats when it comes to the general election, including Penny Mordaunt, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith.
Meanwhile polls also show Labour in Scotland narrowing the gap on the SNP, with one survey last week showing the parties just two points apart and polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice saying that every seat in Scotland could be marginal at the general election.
Labour knows it cannot assume victory and still has to work hard to win over or win back many voters who want rid of the Tories but are nevertheless wary of Labour. And the party has a difficult line to tread. Keir Starmer has done all he can to prove Labour has moved on from the Jeremy Corbyn era – even banning the former leader from standing again for the party. But he has also disappointed many by ditching policies – including ones which are popular with the public, like nationalising utilities – and promising Labour will not introduce a wealth tax, increase capital gains tax or raise the 45p top rate of income tax.
Of course Labour needs to appeal to people who have previously voted Tory and may feel threatened by the prospect of taxes on the rich. And the party has always faced more questions on its tax and spending plans than the Tories. But there are risks in overdoing the caution. Amid the nonsense of culture wars and toxic attacks, the party ought to be offering a message of hope that things can be different.