The real middle – and what it really wants

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.

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6 Responses to “The real middle – and what it really wants”

  1. Joe says:

    John, While I take issue with the notion that the middle is essentially conservative the bigger question you haven’t addressed is what political and economic system can provide this for people?

  2. oliver says:

    What worries me is any political party pandering to a demographic that “have a concern, bordering on contempt, for those who they believe are fiddling benefits or are work shy” in a country where the media is pretty much dominated and influenced by right-wing thinking. A media that pretty much demonises anyone on benefits who isn’t a middle-class child benefit recipient.

    I’m not denying there’s a very small minority that exploit the benefits system, but through the right-wing media lens, this tiny minority is conflated with all benefit recipients.

    People who believe nonsense about the pervasiveness of a ‘benefits lifestyle choice’ need their eyes opening not pandering too.

  3. Robert says:

    Problem is if you work so hard to keep those swing voters happy you may well lose the others which have stuck with labour through thick and thin.

    But I do think Labour has to reinvent it’s self and the first would be to give up the name labour, then we can he claim it and try and start again.

  4. Bryonny G-H says:

    “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.”

    Erm … Melbourne just elected a Green MP to its national seat. In Melbourne suburbs during the state election (at least the suburbs I frequent) the Bailieu + candidates campaigning coalesced around clearway extensions which many felt would hurt local shopping districts.

  5. Ian Silvera says:

    Good post, however comparing Cameron to Mao is too far. I agree Labour need to capture the imagination of the public. Mr Milliband needs to tap into some good ol’ fashioned patriotism- Thatcher and Regan certainly achieved this.

  6. Excellent post. If only Labour had stuck with the conscientious social conservatism of Orwell, rather than embracing the liberal, neophile selfishness of the ’60s.

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