After last week’s earthquake it is tempting firstly to debate party strategy for the Liberal Democrats, and then to gloat a bit over Labour’s ineptitude. But such an inward focus on the political left and centre-left is one of the reasons why these parties got into such trouble. I want to think about that key group of voters that I will call Middle England. These are the voters that plumped for the Conservatives, and won them the election.
What I will develop is a bit of an archetype. It is not based on scientific evidence – though anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail forms part of the picture. What I am creating therefore is a bit of a myth. But I think it will help to think about politics in a different way – and the validity of any new thinking that flows from it can then be tested to proper evidence in due course.
The Middle England voter is predominantly suburban and middle class, but includes much of the established working class too – by which I do not mean those struggling on the margins of poverty and state benefits, which is what some seem to understand by the term “working class”. These voters exist in large stretches of Wales as well as England. I read that Scottish voters are much more similar to English ones than is popularly realised – so similar voters must exist north of the border too in large numbers too. But their voting behaviour was different, and should be considered on a different occasion.
What do we know about such voters?
- The Tory brand is not toxic to them. This makes them stand apart from most of the urban middle classes with whom I associate, and the more tribal working classes. Middle England does not regard itself as dependent on the state, and its sense of wellbeing is affected by taxes. This gives the Conservatives an opening, and make Middle England voters particularly suspicious of parties that are profligate with state spending.
- But they are open to voting for other parties. This makes them a critical political group – they are swing voters. They voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour; large numbers voted Liberal Democrat between 1997 and 2010. Ukip has fished in these waters too. They like great British institutions like the NHS, state schools and the old age pension. They accept that they must pay taxes to fund these things. They are distrustful of the political and business elites.
- They mainly work in the private sector. This is perhaps the critical point, and one that separates them from the modern political class – who build their careers within, or on the margins of, government and the public sector. Middle England voters are used to the rough world of competitive markets and to the disciplines that flow from it, such as constant performance appraisal and being forced to rethink the way you work. They face many insecurities, and their life depends on the health of the economy – but they do not think that these things depend on government spending and regulation, in the way that much of the political class seems to.
It would be easy to build up this characterisation further, and speculate on property ownership, newspaper readership and other things. But I think that this is enough for now.
What seems to have happened is this: Middle England largely backed Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s, but deserted her as her government seemed bent on taking apart precious British institutions. In 1992 they were persuaded to stick with the Conservatives under John Major, in a campaign with a striking similarity to this year’s. But Tony Blair offered them what they were looking for, and they switched en masse for his party in 1997. In many parts of the country they favoured the Lib Dems, as being a sensible party of the political centre. In 2010 Gordon Brown’s Labour lost them. The economic crash of 2008 swept away Labour’s reputation for economic competence and strong management of the state’s finances. And they were getting grumpy over the government’s tendency to nag and nanny them. But by and large they stuck with the Lib Dems. And Middle England does not appear to have been too upset with the coalition that followed – though doubts grew about the junior party.
This year the Conservatives secured the Middle England vote in a ruthless campaign that reached under the media’s radar. The Lib Dems were already weakened by the loss of votes to Labour (the party’s other key constituency of left wing sympathisers disillusioned with New Labour), and their seeming irrelevance in seats outside their areas of strength. Middle England voters in areas of Lib Dem strength were the main focus of the Conservative campaign. Their weapon was fear of a Labour government, particularly one dependent on the SNP – who were seen as being after English taxpayers’ money.
Labour played into Tory hands. They made no serious attempt to recover the Middle England vote. They didn’t think they needed it. Their appeal was to public sector dependants, younger idealists fired up by ideas of “social justice”, and poorer people in urban areas affected by benefit reforms (especially here in London). All they needed to do, they thought, was to hang on to their core support and sweep up defectors from the Lib Dems. Labour took some care not to appear profligate, and claimed that their plans could be financed by cheap borrowing and taxes on people too rich to be considered Middle England. They assumed that everybody knew that “austerity” had failed. But this sounded suspiciously like empty political words. It was particularly damaging when Ed Miliband refused to seriously criticise Labour’s previous economic record, notably on the Question Time TV show. It didn’t help Labour that the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon banged on about fighting austerity at every opportunity. “Austerity” is a bit of a political class jargon, but the public soon started to understand that it was synonymous with what they understood as prudent financial management.
Labour and the Lib Dems clearly also hoped that the Tories would be fatally wounded by the rise of Ukip. But where it mattered the same ruthless Tory campaign was able to limit the damage here. So the Tories swept away the Lib Dems and contained any Labour advance in England and Wales.
Now Labour and the Lib Dems must confront the damage done. They can’t rely on a Tory implosion over the next five years – though that is a possibility. Unless they can reduce the fears of Middle England neither party will win back power. Labour leadership candidates at least seem to understand this. But whether they can drag along their activists and trade union supporters in a single parliament remains open to question. I will return to the Labour predicament in a future blog.
The problem for the Lib Dems looks even worse. Their electoral strategy of local do-gooding and scooping up tactical votes is incompatible with coalition government, and a core values appeal does not look able to secure anything like enough votes in enough constituencies. I will blog about that in future too.
But what we need to contemplate is a complete change to the political landscape. The idea of a natural “progressive” (or left-leaning) majority in England is well and truly dead. If you add Ukip’s vote to the Conservative one in England you get 55%. To appeal to these voters you cannot throw public money at all your favourite causes, bang on about about “social justice”, or whinge about austerity. The left has been living in a dream world for the last five years, and ignoring the worries of Middle England.
But all is not lost. The Conservatives won’t have it easy either. Their tendency to attack sacred British institutions remains. By all accounts many of their voters are reluctant ones. What politicians of the left must recognise is that this is the key electoral battleground – and not the politics of protest and chatter amongst people who share your own outlook. Long live democracy!