The newspapers at the end of last week presented us with two apparently unrelated stories that are critical to understanding which groups of voters are likely to have the greatest influence on the outcome of the next General Election, and how the parties are going to have to craft messages and policies to appeal to them.
The Telegraph’s Peter Oborne wrote that the Australian election consultant Lynton Crosby (he of the “dog whistle” fame and mastermind of two Boris mayoral victories) was going to strategise for the Tories in 2015. Oborne’s view is that this spells the death-knell of Cameron’s hug a huskie/hug a hoodie phase that started in 2005. Certainly the harsh tone of the rhetoric at Tory conference seems to bear this out.
The Guardian meanwhile reported on YouGov’s polling for Progress which shows working class voters are more rightwing than middle class ones by self-definition, and with particular reference to issues like immigration, and that skilled working class C2s are particularly enthusiastic about welfare reform.
The YouGov findings are, to anyone themselves from a working class background or who spends much time canvassing in working class areas, a statement of the bleeding obvious. But sadly the Labour movement’s capacity for self-delusion and romanticising the class we are supposed to represent, rather than getting on with the nitty-gritty of actually representing them and their real views, is immense. So Progress have done us all an immense favour by getting a reputable pollster to give us the hard numbers that tell us that our own conversations on the doorstep and in our communities represent the reality of working class opinion, not just anecdotal accidents.
Unfortunately for Labour, the Tories have never romanticised the political views of working class voters, and have from time to time shown a ruthlessly populist ability to court a minority of them into the Tory column against their economic self-interest. Under Thatcher they used the politics of working class aspiration, council house right-to-buy, share sell-offs, nationalist rhetoric and exposing Labour’s out-of-touch shopping list of unpopular and extreme policies, to grab and hang on to a winning slice of the working class vote for four elections in a row.
Lynton Crosby isn’t coming here by mistake. He’s coming because the Tories get that they need and might be able to win some working class votes without needing Peter Kellner to spell it out to them. Crosby is a master of winning over working class “battlers” in suburban Australian marginals for the Liberals, their Tories. What makes working class swing or potential swing voters tick in the UK is remarkably similar to their Australian counterparts.
We are now in a most unusual situation where we have moved from a party system in the 1950s where there was quite a close relationship between class and political ideology to one where “proportionately more middle-class people (36%) describe themselves as leftwing than working-class (28%).”
The major trade unions have been completely correct to identify a need for Labour to re-engage with its working class base or risk both not winning back that part of it we lost between 1997 and 2010, but also some of what we still have.
They are correct that we need policies that resonate with working class voters and candidates that are representative of them.
The point at which the analysis of some of the more leftwing voices in the movement breaks down though is when they conclude, thanks to an understandable desire to project their own political hopes onto the working class, that what working class voters want, and what would increase their turnout and their propensity to vote Labour, is a very traditional hard left policy platform, a lot of very leftwing rhetoric, and candidates who are prepared to spout it.
The market for that sort of Labour Party was tested in 1983 when the country was far more industrialised, the distribution of population far more tilted to the North and cities, the workforce far more unionised, the self-identifying working class and “left” far bigger. It was deeply unpopular then – including with working class voters who should have been part of our core vote – and would be even less popular now in a vastly changed country where the core components of Labour’s base are a lot smaller.
We need to be very careful that we don’t start appealing to an imaginary radical working class vote while the real working class vote is assiduously wooed by Lynton Crosby.
Some of the very stark responses that came through in the YouGov poll, such as that “among C2 and DE voters a ban on all immigration is supported by 67% to 26%”, are inconsistent both with our values as a party, and with the national interest. But if we don’t develop a policy offer in areas like this that really matter to working people, that shows them we are serious and we are listening, we might as well just give what should be our core vote to Lynton Crosby on a plate.
Certainly if we retreat into very dated leftist rhetoric thinking it will mobilise the working classes when in fact they regard themselves as less leftwing than their middle class counterparts, we will deserve political extinction.
By articulating a vision of One Nation, Ed Miliband has created an ideological framework that makes it possible to appeal to voters of all classes. Now we need to select candidates who are diverse enough to embody that One Nation, and tuned in enough to ordinary voters to fight for their concerns, not the ones we might fantasise that they have. And we need to develop a policy platform that is robust enough that the gritty, cynical-about-politics British working class equivalents of the Aussie Battlers will see that it offers them a more realistic and effective tackling of the issues they are worried about and a more prosperous future than whatever blandishments Lynton Crosby is dog-whistling at them.