This coming election’s most important coherent block of swing voters live in provincial England. They’re mostly older and female, they’re mostly working class (C2/D), and they’re highly eurosceptic.
Other groups matter too, of course – such as the mostly Southern, suburban professionals – but they’re smaller in number. Things might change but, painful as it is for some to accept, this election will primarily be decided by the provincial English. This working-class group is emphatically not locked down for the Conservatives.
The Conservatives’ last campaign – with its threat to penalise careful, thrifty pensioners with massive social care costs, and implicit threats of general tax rises – prevented the Conservatives carrying working-class voters in what should have been a landslide.
Lessons have been learned and the announcements made by the Prime Minister and crafted by Vote Leave alumni to date have been crafted tailored to this group. The coming manifesto will be better targeted too.
Much of the manifesto writes itself, with obvious demands for action on Brexit, public services, and crime. But there’s an area slowly creeping onto the agenda in the same way crime did a year ago: tax. Long dismissed as an issue of limited electoral potency, things are slowly but definitely changing. In crafting an economic policy for working-class and lower-middle-class swing voters, the Conservatives need a set of attractive policies on tax.
What should these policies look like? Over the summer, I ran a detailed opinion research exercise for the TaxPayers’ Alliance to probe working class attitudes to prospective tax policies. Combining a 4,000 nat-rep poll with half-a-dozen focus groups of swing voters in seats with heavy working-class representation – Walsall, Stoke North, and Bristol North West – we tested a long list of options the political parties might realistically announce for the next election.
(While all polls date fast in the current environment, by polling at the high point of the Brexit Party’s prominence and the low-point of the Conservatives’ recent polling performance, we can at least gauge the softness of Conservative pledged support and therefore the number of their voters who are essentially swing voters in this block).
You can read the full tables and judge for yourself here. However, two main things stand out. Firstly, most importantly: working-class voters want a system that looks to them much fairer than the current system. Secondly, and more surprisingly: they want government to help businesses – mainly start-ups and local businesses, but businesses generally – because they’re worried about the state of the economy.
This second lesson contradicts popular wisdom in Westminster. Both require more explanation. Given a list of prospective tax cuts, working class voters have a clear view of who should be the primary recipients of help via tax cuts, and who should take on more of the financial burden through tax rises.
For example, we found support for: a reduction in the basic rate of tax; higher tax thresholds so people are not dragged into higher bands by rising inflation; an increase in the threshold at which stamp duty kicks in; and National Insurance rebates for those that don’t claim Jobseekers Allowance for five years.
On the other hand, we also found support for: a higher rate of tax on top earners; and higher taxes on second homes. Working class voters don’t just want a system that benefits “people like them” (although they do want that), they want a system that supports those that need it – and in their eyes deserves it.
This research showed not only that working-class voters are supportive of business tax cuts, but they’re also much more supportive of business tax cuts than middle-class professional voters. They have a bias towards supporting tax cuts for new businesses (for start-ups), for small businesses, and for local businesses. For example, they strongly favour start-ups paying no corporation tax (often a heavy burden) for their first three years of operation, and tax cuts for small businesses and the self-employed. But they favour generally pro-business tax cuts too: they favour a reduction in employers’ PAYE contribution, and a general cut in corporation tax too.
The focus groups help us to understand why this might be. Fundamentally, it’s because working-class voters are much more concerned about their jobs – generally, but specifically in the context of Brexit – and they see more clearly what their communities would look like with fewer jobs.
In places like Stoke, for example, where the potteries went a while ago, all that’s really left, in local people’s eyes, are distribution centres, warehouses, and call centres. Politicians and left-wing activists sneer at these sorts of jobs, but local people don’t and local people fear that higher taxes will drive businesses away and leave them with nothing.
Working class support for business has been a real phenomenon for a while now – certainly since the referendum – and I have been arguing here for a while these arguments about voters thinking “capitalism is broken” are miles off. I fear that – like the ideas the public want everything in optimistic Obama-esque language, or that every policy should be designed to help the very poorest – this has captured Conservative politicians’ minds.
Conservatives need to un-learn this “lesson”. Working-class voters want to hear policies that will help their employers, not that those that might drive them away.
Tax isn’t a tier-one issue yet, but it’s going up in the public’s mind – and particularly amongst working class voters. They are, after all, people that have not had a pay rise in a long time and who struggle with rising costs. They are also people that live side-by-side with those they think don’t work hard, and who live comfortable lives on welfare. And they are people that fear what a weaker economy might mean for their long-term financial health.
For all these reasons, tax will become an issue that politicians have to start talking about soon.