by Tom Watson
While holding my tie in his clenched fist, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser once described me as “that Prescottite” who tries to be a “hard man of the soft left”. No, I never understood what he was on about either. It was late. We were young. Ish.
In so doing, Benjamin was unwittingly demonstrating that labels are usually unhelpful. Sometimes though, they help the non-activist understand the complex world of UK politics. And, even more occasionally, they help a politician understand UK politics.
If ever I were allowed to define myself, it would probably be as a “Kempian pragmatist” – a follower of the former MP, Fraser Kemp. Fraser’s phenomenological approach to life gives him the rare ability to sniff change in the air. He can feel the faint pulse of a political tremor before it reaches the clipboards of the opinion pollsters, those who write the reports that land on the desks of the people who sit behind them in newspaper offices and political party head quarters.
That’s why I love by-elections. I love listening to people in their authentic voice. For all the bluster, politicians find it hard to listen. You never, ever, fail to learn something about life if you spend a month on the campaign trail in a by-election. It always amazes me that more MPs do not spend more hours working out in the field than listening to themselves in Westminster.
And what is the pulse here in Barnsley? What tremors do these conversations prophesy?
I think perhaps they forewarn of a new label: the Ed Miliband Tory.
It is a voter group which is still being sketched, but the basic characters fall into two categories: ordinary middle class parents with the kids still at home and retired people with small savings.
In the context of Barnsley, though not large in number, it is the middle class families that are most interesting. They will probably commute to cities like Leeds and Sheffield. They are not part of Barnsley’s Labour tradition based around mining. In fact, they don’t consider themselves to be strongly politically aligned, but enthusiastically endorsed David Cameron last May because they felt he was a different kind of Tory leader. They thought he represented fresh thinking. He was pro-family. Not in the traditional moralising way, but in a manner that showed he understood the daily stresses of balancing work and family life. They shared a sceptical approach to Labour’s crime and immigration policy.
What a difference nine months makes. Ed Miliband Tories feel the rising costs of VAT and inflation – they are particularly hit by high fuel prices as they commute by car. To them, the “big society” is a silly notion, made up by people in London. The idea that the “big society” will replace the public services they have come to rely on does not compute. And, for many, they are in shock that social programmes that they felt were ring-fenced by David Cameron before the election now face the chop.
For young, aspirant families, this means they have been able to benefit from schemes like sure start and book start, which are now being cut. For families with older children, they can’t understand how they will afford the huge cost of sending their children away from home for university (there is only limited provision locally).
To this group, Cameron is now seen as a key negative, remote and uncaring. Unlike before the election, he doesn’t seem to be talking and listening to ordinary people. They used to see him in the living rooms of people like them, now they just see him jetting around the world.
It’s a remarkable turnaround in opinion; one of which I don’t believe the
Conservatives have fully understood the significance. From the conversations I have had in Barnsley, it will be virtually impossible for David Cameron to rebuild the fragile trust that had convinced enough people to make the Tories the largest party last year.
When I ask them about Ed Miliband, it’s clear they’re still getting to know him. They like what they see though. And they see him on TV speaking up against the unpopular things the Tories are doing. He seems honest and bright and fresh. On the basis of the doorstep conversations I’ve witnessed in the last 10 days, I would urge Ed to maintain the “too deep, too soon” argument.
I’d also advise him to resist the urge to project silly, trivial stories. Giving a new life for a stray moggy in Downing Street may lighten the mood of lobby hacks from News International, but it irritates struggling families. The spin people at Number 10 haven’t yet worked out that their so-called human interest stories subliminally irritate workers facing uncertain futures. A lot of people, me included, voted for Darren Gough on Strictly Come Dancing. But to think he can represent the needs of families in tough times actually gets up people’s noses.
Ed should be an honest and straight politician during difficult times. It contrasts favourably with the faux-populism of the aristocratic Mr Cameron. He’s kidding no-one but himself.
So the lesson of Barnsley may be that, for the first time in many years, Labour is attracting switchers from the other parties. It’s early days. But, be in no doubt, we’re seeing the Ed Miliband Tories begin to raise their arms in protest at the government they elected less than a year ago.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.