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”.
On Monday I was part of a panel on Radio 4’s Start the Week, considering populism, nationalism and anti-politics. We discussed whether the centre ground had vanished and whether large parts of the country were in revolt. Brexit and Trump make these questions more important and relevant than ever. So what’s the answer?
If anything, there’s a quiet counter-revolution going on in England. In essence, it’s a lower middle class counter-revolution against the modern left’s broad, active agenda. This is an agenda that’s perceived to care only about the poorest and not at all for those on middle incomes, that considers taxpayers’ money a vast resource to be spent on pet projects, that happily accepts welfare dependency and rewards zero effort, that not only pushes mass immigration but visibly celebrates it, and that sneers at simple patriotism.
Brexit was merely one manifestation of this counter-revolution. The Tory victory in 2015 was another manifestation, as is the current Labour collapse in the polls.
People rejected Ed Miliband’s Labour because of its worrying economic policy, likely tax rises and opposition to Conservative welfare reforms viewed as right and fair. With Brexit, people voted against large-scale immigration which they believed undermined their ability to access public services quickly and easily, and against a system that seemed to reward people that had not “paid in”. They also rejected the idea that Euroscepticism and simple patriotism was linked to extremism. And now they’re rejecting Corbyn for a mix of the same reasons.
It’s a counter-revolution rather than a revolution because these lower middle class voters have no positive ideological agenda they want to see implemented – they just want to stop changes they view negatively. It’s quiet because lower middle class people don’t have a public voice – they make their views known only at election time.
Some voters in England are angry and are part of an anti-politics mood. But anger doesn’t define most people most of the time. There have been occasions when anger has been all consuming – around the expenses scandal, for example – but mainstream politicians refused to tap into what might have been a very potent electoral force. Most lower middle class people are therefore not ripe for targeting by UKIP. They want to get on with their own lives and be left alone – with Government providing what’s necessary to do that.
There are many implications arising from all this. In the short-term, it means that the current incarnation of the Labour Party is not viable. Corbyn is a disaster for the Labour Party and they are in turn irrelevant. More importantly for today, it also means that the greater the controversy surrounding our exit from the EU, the better it is for Theresa May. In fighting to get us out of the EU, she is fighting for people’s vision of fairness and tapping into people’s strongly held simple patriotism. She should seek every confrontation possible and watch her ratings rise.
In the longer-term, it means all the parties need to promote change with great caution and not to think that voters are passive agents to be ignored or sidestepped.