by John Spellar
Target voters have been described as Worcester Woman, Mondeo Man and now the “squeezed middle” or “alarm clock Britain”. However, far too much of the discussion has focused on describing the groups rather than trying to assess what this very substantial and important group of voters think, feel or are looking for from politics. In particular, too many commentators seem to believe that they are looking for constant innovation, change and excitement. They would do better to heed Mark Twain, who is reported as saying “I’m all for progress; its change I don’t like”.
With his usual acute observation he encapsulated the attitude of a huge block of voters and particularly those swing voters among the C1 and C2s. They are crucial for elections, not only in the UK, but across the English speaking world. Indeed, I suspect, in much of the rest of the world, particularly the Nordic countries.
In Britain, they have been the backbone of Labour victories, but also the key to victories for Conservative leaders who can tap into their psyche and articulate their concerns. Elsewhere, Ronald Reagan was probably the most adept at this. While the Australian leader, John Howard, and Margaret Thatcher built their success on this group in their earlier years, both were probably too much radical revolutionaries pushing instability, John Howard with “work choices” and Thatcher with the poll tax.
David Cameron should reflect on this before he rushes ahead with his Maoist “great leap forward” in the NHS.
A mistake common to both the radical Conservatives and the intellectual left is to believe that the voters want to be in a constant turmoil of aspiration and change. In fact, they want a quiet and comfortable life with steady improvement. That middle portion of the electorate is very much a type B rather than type A personality. That was the secret of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair: they offered non-threatening change. These voters want to go to work, be fairly rewarded and treated with respect. They want the opportunity to move up a bit at work, but not to feel pressured to do so. They are diligent and reliable workers and have a concern, bordering on contempt, for those who they believe are fiddling benefits or are work shy.
However, work is not the only, or main, focus of their life. The most important things are home, family and hobbies. They are law abiding and expect others to play by the rules. They want to live in a peaceful, orderly neighbourhood. If they do not, then they are hostile, both to the perpetrators and the authorities who permit it to happen. They expect the state to protect them from threats at home and abroad.
Following this, they want structure and stability in their lives and their surroundings. That is the huge gulf between them and the intelligentsia who value novelty and fashion above all else and who have a significant and disproportionate influence over public policy. Ordinary people expect the state to defend them against louts in their street and terrorists in their cities, which is why they support ASBOs and control orders. At work, they expect proper procedures for deciding their pay, benefits and any disciplinary matters. They expect their children and other children to behave in school and to come out literate, numerate and employable. They expect their health service to be clean, caring and efficient.
If we do not meet these challenges, the omens are discouraging. In the last elections in Sweden, our colleagues in the Social Democrat party only received 20% of the votes of those in work. In Stockholm the figure was 14%. The Australian Labour party is now having a major argument about whether their attempts to accommodate the social liberal policies of the Greens have cost them the government in Victoria as they get hammered in the Melbourne suburbs. Our Democrat colleagues in the US have performed badly among white workers in the mid-west.
For Labour parties to lose the support of workers is not just a phase in the electoral cycle, it is an existential threat. Our essence is in our title. It may be that some wish to resurrect the Jenkinsite heresy of a revived Liberal party, all the more incredible now that Nick Clegg has so severely dented the illusion of Lib Dem progressivism. We should welcome individual Lib Dem voters or activists, but recognise that their party has lost its way.
For us to survive and thrive as a Labour party, we need to reconnect with working people and their views and hopes and fears. And the sooner the better.
Rt Hon John Spellar is Labour MP for Warley.