The Conservatives are planning to chip away at the lower middle-class voter and release his inner Tory
Two inconvenient truths will put the dampeners on what could have been a celebratory Conservative party conference in Birmingham next week. First, there is a champagne ban for the third year running. There are to be no pictures of Tories with bubbly. Next, there is no real victory to toast. David Cameron failed to win a majority against Gordon Brown, which is something of a sore point among his advisers. Visitors to No. 10 are told that this is ‘not a helpful subject’ to bring up. There is a ‘don’t mention the campaign’ policy running in Cameron Towers.
But beneath this defensiveness lies an understanding of what went wrong. The campaign failed because the party stood for everybody and nobody: David Cameron had no ‘people’ in the way that Margaret Thatcher did. In Birmingham, Mr Cameron and George Osborne will start to address this. From now until the next election, the focus of their government policies will be on the lower middle-class voters who have delivered Conservative election victories in the past. From tax policy to language and values, the government intends to focus on these people — and release the hidden Tory inside. Like political Michelangelos, they intend to chip away with their policy chisels and set this Tory free.
The phrase ‘Cameron’s people’ may well conjure up visions of Notting Hillbillies with OKA kitchens and sea-grass carpets. But by the time of the next election, it should apply to voters paid between £25,000 and £40,000 a year, who use public services and can’t afford to go private. They may be anxious about their local crime rate or choice of schools, but they cannot afford to move to a better area. Their only hope is that public services reform improves their lives and the fiscal pain they suffer as the national books are balanced is minimised. And this is precisely what Mr Cameron hopes to achieve. It’s not so much the Selsdon man as the Cameron couple.
The last time the Conservatives won a general election, John Major garnered a majority of lower middle-class voters — the so-called C1s. Today, this group has a household income of around £33,000. In 1992, they voted Tory by a margin of two to one. But New Labour’s success was built on the mass defection of these voters: in 1997, Tony Blair captured their votes and won the election. Cameron has failed properly to repair the damage: there was only a 3 per cent swing to the Tories among this group at the last election.
Conservative candidates in marginal seats report that while a large number of working-class voters were so worried about Labour’s record on immigration that they were switching their votes, lower middle-class voters couldn’t see how their lives would be better under the Conservatives. In an era when party political loyalties are breaking down, voters tend to ask more than ever: ‘what do I get in return for my vote?’ The answer the Conservatives proffered at the last election — an invitation to join the government of Britain — proved unpersuasive.
Had Mr Cameron done anywhere near as well as John Major did with the lower middle class, there’d be no need for Liberal Democrats in government. The Conservatives must make this group again believe that they are their tribunes — the champions of their values.
So how to woo them? The plan being pieced together in the Treasury and No. 10 involves a mix of pocketbook and cultural issues. ‘If there is anything left over we target it on those on between £20,000 and £40,000 a year,’ one key figure tells me. But this is precisely the group that Ed Miliband is pitching himself at: the group he calls ‘the squeezed middle’. He presents himself as a defender of their values and their benefits. Intriguingly, he is trying to portray himself as being a defender of aspiration by attacking tuition fees as something that puts a cap on how far people can rise.
Even Nick Clegg is keen to get in on the act. One adviser says he is considering setting up a ‘middle-class task force’ akin to the one that Joe Biden runs in the United States. The pair have discussed the idea.
Between now and the next election, we can expect a defining political fight for the support of precisely such voters. The Cameron couple, Miliband man and the Clegg convert are roughly the same sort of people. They are about to be inundated with declarations of political love.
Osborne is determined that the Tories must get in there first, and be most emphatic. On Andrew Marr’s sofa three months ago, he declared his intention to ‘support the person who leaves their house at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., goes out and does perhaps a low-paid job in order to provide for their family, and is incredibly frustrated when they see on the other side of the street the blinds pulled down and someone sitting there on a life of out-of-work benefits’. The welfare reform planned by Iain Duncan Smith will not, in themselves, make the Cameron couple better off. But they will appeal to their sense of justice.
The strategy is as much about values as value for money. When Mr Osborne recently declared that savings in welfare would be used to protect other public services, he intended it as a classic ‘wedge’ issue. If Labour opposed it, they could be portrayed as being on the side of the idle. The Tory message is clear: we’re on your side against the scroungers.
The Cameron couple probably live in a safe street — but one that is too close to bad areas. They can’t afford to move out, and are in despair at the police’s failure to deal with low-level crime. The Cameroons intend to offer them a directly elected police chief who will have to respond to the crimes that bother people most.
If the Cameron couple are fearful about the state schools that their children will have to attend — and again, cannot afford to move to a better catchment area — then this coalition government has an offer: a new state-funded but independent school in your neighbourhood. Seeing as 65 per cent of the lower middle class would send their children to private school if they could afford it, this is a change on a par with a massive cut in the basic rate of income tax. Sadly, the Conservatives have yet to sell the policy in these terms.
All this was far easier for Thatcher. She grew up in such a household, and felt a deep emotional connection with the ‘strivers’. She would read letters they sent to 10 Downing Street, not to gather ideas but to learn about their lives, their troubles and what they hoped to achieve. The Prime Minister was broadcasting on the wavelength of her most crucial supporters.
Part of the explanation for Cameron’s failure to make a breakthrough with the lower middle class is his lack of an emotional connection with them. He is not one of them. But more important is that the Cameroons believed that the Tory party should be for the whole country, and that only this would decontaminate the brand. As one MP closely involved in the Conservatives’ general election campaign puts it, ‘showing that we were all in this together was the most important thing for us’. The Tories did not make pitches to certain groups: it would have cut against the unifying rhetoric. They couldn’t claim to stand for one set of people more than another.
But at some point, if you’re for everybody, you’re for nobody. This is increasingly seen as the moral of the last election. So the budget decision to increase the personal allowance by £1,000 is being spoken of as a move worth £400 to the Cameron couple.
The Tories intend to make their target voters fear Ed Miliband’s economics. They’ll warn that if he wants fewer cuts, this will mean more tax rises. Labour’s spending plans will be instantly totted up to a painful tax bill, just as Brown and Balls translated any Tory plan to cut spending into the number of nurses and teachers who would lose their jobs. Matt Hancock (George Osborne’s former chief of staff and now his lead backbench attack dog) is saying that Miliband’s plan could lead to a 7p rise in the basic rate of income tax. It’s a glimpse of the ‘tax bombshell’ style in which the Tories intend to attack the Labour leader.
It has been too long in coming. But a proper dividing line is finally being drawn between Labour and the Conservatives, and on territory of Cameron’s choosing. If his government is going to survive making the sharpest public spending cuts since the 1920s, he is going to need support. He will need his people, just as Baroness Thatcher needed hers. And this will be the message from next week’s conference. It’s time to carve out a new Tory voter — and the chiselling has just begun.
From marble angels to pebbledash people
Holby City woman