James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The central question in English politics is this: how can we help those that work hard enjoy middle class lifestyles? Other questions matter, but this ought to be the question that every political strategist, Cabinet Minister and Permanent Secretary asks.
Roughly in order, most people want the following: a stable well-paying job, rapid access to good healthcare, a decent-sized house with a garden, a nice car that doesn’t break the bank, a life free of crime, a stable pension, a little disposable income and good local schools.
And, crucially, they only want to see those that work hard to be rewarded by the state – with those that break the rules punished.
This doesn’t mean all Government activity should be focused on the middle class, but that the Government should help families aspire to what is essentially a classically middle class lifestyle.
Politically speaking, that means focusing particularly on the mass of C1/C2 “just about managing” voters who decide elections, and for whom middle class lifestyles are either just out of reach or precariously balanced. These are the people that really feel and care about changes to their lifestyle.
The Brexit vote should be viewed within this context: people voting to secure or maintain a middle class lifestyle and deliver a “fair” society. While not universally true, vast numbers of leave voters were clearly driven by concerns about jobs, access to public services and affordable housing.
They were also concerned about perceptions of fair access to services for people that had not “paid in”. The last General Election should also be viewed within this context. In 2015, many were worried the economy would be wrecked and taxes would rise if Labour won. And they were worried that those that didn’t “deserve” help via welfare would be rewarded.
Trump powered to victory off the back of white working class voters’ concerns about the lack of any meaningful economic opportunities and the high cost of living. But the just about managing voters currently sweeping British campaigns to victory are more concerned about protecting their position and doing a little better. Trump’s voters are more revolutionary than either Brexit voters or Tory voters. British voters are quiet revolutionaries, at best.
Surprises are occurring in British (or perhaps more accurately, English) politics because we aren’t focusing sufficiently on what the parties are doing to deliver the key characteristics of middle class life to these would-be middle class voters – jobs, healthcare etc – and because we’re not taking seriously enough what drives them mad.
As the Tories finish off preparations for their Autumn Statement, this central question should be at the front of their mind: will it help hard working people secure and maintain middle class lifestyles?
It’s clear the Tories are at least thinking about the problem. It remains to be seen whether they can move the machinery of Government sufficiently to deliver policies and campaigns so they can answer “yes”.