On the campaign trail in Barnsley, Tom Watson finds a new voter group: the Ed Miliband Tory

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.

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9 Responses to “On the campaign trail in Barnsley, Tom Watson finds a new voter group: the Ed Miliband Tory”

  1. Jackyboy86 says:

    Because, of course, Middle class families are underrepresented, undereducated, and therefore culturally excluded from the library system – which, despite being around about 1000 years longer than bookstart, seems to have been completely forgotten in this devastating cut!
    I’m sorry, is it ‘too deep, too soon’ to ask people to pop down to the library and borrow a book as opposed to have them arrive for free on the doorstep?
    Bookstart was a chronic waste of money which could have been put to better use. A tenth of it’s budget could have paid for an advertising service for libraries, the rest could have gone to surestart.

    Which is a good idea in theory – about the only good idea thats being cut.

  2. stevibaldi says:

    labour turned tory when Bliar became PM end of!!

  3. Tacitus says:

    No doubt we will see many disillusioned folk from the Tories and the Lib-Dems. Cameron is essentially a PR man, but eventually it will be clear to all that all is not what it seems on the packet.

    At that time Labour could pick up a lot of debris, but first we need to convince people we are a viable alternative. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

  4. Martin Marprelate says:

    A very interesting analysis from Labour MP Tom Watson and some of the points he raised echo with myself I have to say. Don’t get me wrong, whilst I do NOT vilify him and I deplore the school playground names such as “Red Ed” and “Union Stooge” that some people use about him , the way they mock his voice and appearance etc, he is not in my eyes the next Prime Minster in waiting but he may well improve as time goes by. Unless some force majeure precipitates a General Election sooner he has just over 4 years to get his act together and remember that both Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron got off to a shaky start when they became Leader of their party.

    That said, I can empathise with the concerns that Tom Watson mentions amongst those Barnsley electors he calls “Ed Miliband Tories” being in that age-group of people myself, although not a supporter of Ed Miliband nor his party as I have too many bitter memories of Social/ Moral policies they enacted in the 13 years from 1997-2010. I do find it very difficult to name a Conservative Led Coalition policy brought in since May 2010 which is to my advantage or which warms the cockles of my heart apart perhaps from scrapping the ID Card Scheme and the HIPS package required on selling a house. On the other side there are quite a few policies which will be to my disadvantage or which clash with my values and I also see through and utterly reject the “Big Society” as at best a well intentioned but ill thought out and silly “Big Idea”, as at worst a con-trick where the taxpayer get less for more and is expected to do it himself or depend on the efforts of well meaning but amateur untrained and under-resourced volunteers.

    I won’t be voting Conservative again as long as David Cameron or anyone of his like are its Leader but I cannot see me voting Labour either and certainly not Lib-Dem.

  5. Nils Boray says:

    What a good article Tom. I didn’t quite get the Darren Gough reference though.

    Seriously that’s sort of what I’d guess would be a developing attitude in Barnsley. It will be interesting to see how it pans out in the election

  6. Ex-labour says:

    Keep believing in “riding the red carpet back to power”. Labour is not going to see a lot of “switchers” – or indeed returners – until there’s a serious analysis and rejection of its enthusiastic authoritarianism while in government, and its willingness to lie to get us into a war.

    An analysis which, frankly, bullies like Watson are not equipped to provide.

  7. Chris says:


    Ed has rightly denounced the Iraq war and said he wants Labour to be more liberal, what more do you want?

    Are you ex-libdem as well?

  8. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Ex-Labour: We have this thing called opinion polling. We have this other thing called local government by-elections. They both suggest that you aren’t really speaking for the mass of the electorate here.

  9. Ex-labour says:

    And there we have it – no analysis, no contemplation, just a belief in tribal rightness. Way to ignore the comments further up the page – many labour supporters were stung by the party’s behaviour in power, and this article and its apologists represent a complacent failure to understand why.

    > “what more do you want?”

    A commitment to stop wasting British lives while supporting the corrupt election-rigger Karzai might be a start. A strategy to stop us supporting dictatorships (which Labour has been quite guilty of). Repudiation of this kind of crap from a Labour “peer”: http://twitter.com/lord_sugar/status/36101245278097409. There is no reason to think that, once in power, Labour will not cheerfully continue the overseas adventures pursued by Blair (whose recent support of Mubarek should be firmly disowned).

    I note that you ignore the point about authoritarianism. So far, the party of fingerprints, ID cards, DNA databases and state-operated CCTV shows little sign of understanding why they were wrong. A commitment to guarantee liberty against the power of the state would be positive.

    > “We have this thing called opinion polling. We have this other thing called local government by-elections.”

    Labour often did well under both those measures under Kinnock. For years and years…while pursuing at the grassroots a politics where complacency and namecalling took the place of reflection, consultation and creation of effective strategy. And so losing general election after general election. Selectively listening to supportive voices won’t avert that fate.

    > “They both suggest that you aren’t really speaking for the mass of the electorate here.”

    The mass of the electorate never switch. Swing voters decide elections, and I have become one. Do you imagine we are attracted by blind, dismissive tribalism?

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