Britain’s Conservative Party goes back to basics; courting married voters with tax breaks

By Gregory Katz, AP
Monday, January 18, 2010

Britain’s Conservative Party goes back to basics

LONDON — Conservative Party chief David Cameron is turning back to basics — focusing on marriage and education as Britain’s general election looms this spring.

The man who in the last two years promised a “green revolution” and reached out to gay Britons to widen the party’s appeal now has based his early campaign on traditional conservative topics, emphasizing the importance of marriage and vowing to improve Britain’s teachers.

Cameron and his party are often saddled with an unwanted elitist image — hard for an Eton graduate to avoid — but the man expected to be Britain’s next prime minister did not shy away from that description on Monday, calling for a “brazenly elitist” upgrade of the teaching profession.

“We’re committed to a comprehensive program of reform to elevate the status of teaching in our country,” he said. “We want to make it the noble profession - the career path that attracts the best brains, is well-rewarded and commands the most respect.”

The focus on education followed a Sunday newspaper column promoting family values and tax breaks for those who marry.

Columnist Simon Jenkins of the liberal Guardian newspaper said Cameron appears to have made a strategic blunder that may cost him support among the relatively large number of voters who are not in traditional nuclear families.

“He thought he was saying the right thing about family, but there’s no point in alienating people,” Jenkins told The Associated Press on Monday. “In seeking to sound good about family values, he contrived to alienate a large proportion of voters who don’t live in conventional families.”

Jenkins said the proposed tax breaks also seemed costly at a time when the Conservative Party has promised to rein in public spending because of Britain’s ballooning deficit.

The election must be called by early June; opinion polls show Cameron’s party has a solid chance to end 13 years of Labour Party supremacy.

Cameron’s aim is to suggest his party’s policies can fix “broken Britain” — a buzz phrase used to describe a country troubled by a plethora of social woes including high teen pregnancy rates, binge drinking, and a rising gang culture.

“A stable home is the best start a child can get,” Cameron wrote in a Sunday column. “That’s why we’ll back commitment by recognizing marriage in the tax system.”

Many European countries and the United States give some tax benefits to married couples. Critics of Cameron’s proposal, however, say his incentives only give tax breaks to couples wealthy enough to have one parent stay home, while married couples in which both spouses work would get no tax breaks at all. Those tax breaks would — in effect — penalize single or divorced parents, critics contend.

“This policy ultimately takes money out of the pockets of the poorest families and gives it to rich ones,” said Danny Alexander, a spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats. “The Tories’ first instinct is to help those at the top.”

London waitress Hannah Graham said most people would not choose to marry, or refrain from divorcing, because of tax breaks.

“Most people marry because they believe in the institution,” she said. “If Cameron thinks this is a method of keeping a family together, that’s not correct. If I want to get out of it, I will.”

Priyal Sanghavi in London contributed to this report.

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