Sophia Parker is the Director of Policy and Research at the Resolution Foundation.
The Conservative campaign started with a promise to champion ordinary people’s concerns – David Cameron’s ‘Great Ignored’ – and it’s clear to see why. Parties from the centre-right, on both sides of the Atlantic, have often relied on the so-called ‘blue collar vote’ to build majorities and bearing in mind the Tories’ struggle to break through the magic 40% barrier in the polls, it is significant that Resolution Foundation data reveals some low hanging fruit for the Tories.
However, Labour’s recent renaissance has been credited to doubts about the Tories’ handling of likely spending cuts and their true understanding of what life is like for ‘ordinary folk’. If they can meld traditional Tory values with policies that protect this group then there could be a significant boost to Tory support.
A third of the electorate are ‘low earners’: in other words, they are economically independent, but coping on below median income. The Resolution Foundation’s latest audit shows that there are 9.4 million working-age low earners, bringing in an average household wage of £15,800 a year.
Some might argue that this group represents traditional Labour voters. But while low earners are still less likely to vote Tory than better-off households, our recent work shows that low earners are the most pessimistic about the future of any group. They have suffered most from the recession – much more than higher earners or those households living on benefits.
We're currently conducting monthly polling to monitor voting intentions of this group and what issues will determine where they put their cross on the ballot paper. This is showing three interesting developments.
The first of these is that despite a significant upswing in Labour support among low earners between February and March, the Tory vote held steady and remained ahead, with just over 40 per cent of the group saying they will back Team Cameron.
Second, poorer low earners – those on incomes of between £11,500 and £20,000 – are saying that they believe the Conservatives will be better at managing the economy than Labour. This is a significant finding: this metric has historically been a strong indicator of who will get the keys to Number 10.
Third, low earners are more likely than any other income group to believe that David Cameron is doing his job well. However while the low earner Conservative vote is now at 1992 levels, it is also true that Cameron’s popularity lags behind John Major’s at a similar moment in the electoral cycle in 1992.
These findings are hugely significant and they provide many echoes of successful right-of-centre parties' attempts to gain a majority on both sides of the Atlantic, be that Mrs Thatcher's aspirant 'blue collar workers', or the Reagan Democrats.
Other key messages from our polling include:
- There has been a drop in the number of low earners saying they were certain not to vote between February and March
- Low earning votes are coalescing around the mainstream parties, with a notable decline in the number of this group who plan to vote for minority parties
- There appears to be a greater propensity within the low earner group than other groups to switch party allegiance
We have also recently conducted a series of focus groups with low earners to gauge their attitudes to politics, politicians and the issues they want to see addressed. What we found was that low earners are fiercely proud of their ability to maintain their economic independence. A pound earned is worth far more than a pound that is handed out, and low earning households want a government that recognises how hard they are working to keep their heads above water. They want to feel that it pays to work, and that it’s worth the effort to save.
Our focus groups also underline the strong sense of fairness that many low earners have. Many feel that they have lost out in recent years, squeezed on the one hand by people living on benefits who are perceived to have an easier life; and on the other by wealthier households who have enjoyed the fruits of a booming economy without being hit as hard by the downsides of higher inflation and more expensive food, fuel and housing.
The twin messages of independence and fairness need to be reflected at every opportunity to appeal to this group. So how to translate these messages into actionable policy? Two examples, taken from the open memo for the next government that we published earlier this month, are:
A plan for growth that does not leave low-paid and low-skilled workers behind. The Tory manifesto underlines the importance of business investment and private sector growth replacing public spending. That’s right, but employers (especially small businesses) will need the right incentives to invest in their low-skilled staff. The reward for employment should be enhanced access to useful training, not a reduction in opportunities.
A focus on building financial health, which will require action not only by government but also by the financial services industry and the third sector. It’s great to see commitments in the Conservative manifesto to stand up for consumers when it comes to excessive interest rates on credit and store cards. But more could be done, not only to protect consumers, but also to support low earners in building up assets for the future.
Our polling shows that the opportunity is there to reach out to this group. Given they make up a third of the electorate the prize is potentially enormous. To mobilise their votes, the Conservative Party will need to show that it understands just how challenging and exhausting it can be to run a household on such low wages, at the same time as recognising and applauding the hard work low earners put in to maintain their economic independence.