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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 defining theme of this column has been the importance of the provincial English lower middle class to the fortunes of the Conservative Party. In the slow post-mortem being undertaken into how the Conservatives threw away the chance of a landslide, you can see people questioning whether Theresa May’s focus on these voters – “the just about managing” – was right. As I’ve written recently, if anything the Conservatives squandered their chance of a majority because of an insufficient focus on these voters. Here are ten things that every Conservative activist should know about them.
1) Lower middle class voters make up approximately half the electorate. C1/C2 voters are hugely important in raw numerical terms. They make up 52 per cent of the electorate in England. By way of comparison, AB voters make up 22 per cent and DE voters 26 per cent. Furthermore, 18-24 year olds make up less than 15 per cent of the electorate (and relatively few vote). These voters can’t be ignored; they decide who enters Number Ten.
(2) They make up more than half the electorate in England’s historically marginal seats. Lower middle class voters are reasonably fairly spread across the country. However, looking at the country’s traditionally marginal seats – heavily represented in the spine of provincial England (admittedly, we’re in something of a state of flux here) – they make up more than half the electorate in most (see p.11 here).
(3) They have coherent values. There are inevitable differences between C1 and C2 voters – unsurprising, given their size – but they can be reasonably called a coherent voting bloc. They’re unified particularly heavily by their values – which above all emphasise family, fairness, hard work and decency (see p.25 here).
(4) They are permanent swing voters. In politics, it’s common to hear strategists say of particular voting blocs: “but where else have they got to go?” The point being, it’s acceptable to drive through policies on particular issues because the alternative party’s overall policy platforms will fare even worse. With C1/C2 voters, that doesn’t work: they have happily changed their vote in election after election down the years (see p.17 here and here. And they didn’t show up for the Conservatives in June.
(5) They are not poor – but definitely not rich, either. Lower middle class voters don’t financially struggle; rather, they struggle to secure and maintain middle class status. For this reason, Theresa May’s Government’s shifting of the “just about managing” strategy to focus on the working poor was a mistake. These are families that typically own their own homes and cars (through mortgages and loans). But it’s equally wrong to treat them as rich: endlessly saying things like, “the success of this policy is measured by the impact it’ll have on the poorest” does exactly that.
(6) The traditional right/left divide is meaningless to them. While we in Westminster tend to think about politics consistently through the traditional right/left prism, to most voters, including the lower middle class, it’s meaningless. They buy an approach that melds traditionally left wing policies (on the NHS and public services generally) with traditionally right wing policies (on crime, immigration and welfare).
(7) They distrust politicians, not government. Anti-politics is still a defining characteristic of the public, and of C1/C2 voters; they still mistrust the competence and motives of politicians. But they also rely heavily on Government – most obviously (and visibly) for hospitals and schools. Classic small-state arguments don’t resonate.
(8) They own their own homes. It can’t be emphasised enough: the lower middle class tend to own their own homes. They’re fortunes are absolutely entwined with the fortunes of the economy as a whole. They need economic stability or they’re in trouble; they don’t have any financial resources to rely on if their mortgage payments go up radically of if they lose their jobs.
(9) They are family-oriented. Family, fairness, hard work and decency are the most highly rated values for all parts of the electorate (values like “entrepreneurship” don’t even get a look in). But for C1/C2 voters “family” is particularly important. And support for the family is something they have associated more with the Labour than the Conservative Party.
(10) The issues politicians focus on don’t always affect them. For example, the lower middle class of provincial England drive – they rarely take buses and trains. While the percentage that go to university has increased (in line with general expansion), the lack of good non-graduate careers is going to be a bigger problem. Women are still very likely to work part-time at every age group: 30 hours of free childcare, let alone focusing on women on boards, is likely to fall flat. In other words, many of our political obsessions are misdirected.