The working class vote of 2012 has different concerns than the working class vote of 1979
By Tim Montgomerie
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This is the second part of a week-long series looking at 'The Wrong Right'; the barriers to the Conservatives winning a majority at the next election. Yesterday I looked at the dangers of following punditry. Tomorrow Peter Hoskin will take another look at the Thatcher/ Reagan years and warn against a slavish, rosy-eyed imitation of them.
Some brief thoughts today on winning over blue collar workers. At the heart of these Majority pages - since they were launched - has been the idea that we need to show that we are a party on the side of people for whom life isn't easy - on the side of people who, every month, are struggling to make ends meet.
In an important piece for the New York Times, conservative commentator Ross Douthat noted that in reaching blue collar Americans Republicans had to realise that the concerns of "middle-class Americans" (middle class means something slightly different in the USA to here) were different from when Reagan reached this group of voters at the end of the 1970s. Douthat wrote:
"Health care now takes a bigger bite than income taxes out of many paychecks. Wage stagnation is a bigger threat to blue-collar workers than inflation. Middle-income parents worry more about the cost of college than the crime rate. Americans are more likely to fret about Washington’s coziness with big business than about big government alone."
At Blue Collar Tories John Stevenson MP makes similar points. "Full employment, expansion of universities, building of council houses" and consumerism were the big blue collar offerings in the 1950s and 60s. In the 80s and 90s it was "council house sales, privatisation, individual freedom and an enterprise culture combined with a sense of nationalism amplified by the invasion of the Falklands." What, he asks, is the Tory pitch to the working class today? "Cuts in corporate tax, higher rate tax, and public spending are all very well (and all very necessary)", he says but they're not enough.
Further to my blog of yesterday I readily concede I'm stumbling around in the dark on these questions. I have some evidence but not much polling. I think I know enough to say that high energy prices, wage stagnation and the level of taxation are top worries for blue collar workers but perhaps the bigger concerns are the cost of childcare (probably not a big issue in 1979), under-performing local schools or even Britain's place in Europe? But I simply can't be sure.
Lord Ashcroft has conducted some polling on 'Blue Collar Tories' and one of the most interesting findings is reproduced today, as point three in his seven point memo to Lynton Crosby. He says that blue collar workers are often as anxious as they are aspirational:
"Re-establishing ourselves as the party of aspiration does not mean presenting ourselves as the party of rugged individualism. As my Blue Collar Tories research found, many people – I called them the Suspicious Strivers – hold Conservative values but see the Tory Party as being for people who have achieved material success; less so for those who do the right thing and have little to show for it. They feel their position is precarious. What the strivers want, as much as anything, is reassurance – that doing the right thing will be worth their while, and that if they needed help, deserving cases would get priority."
This is incredibly important. Some Conservatives too often give the impression that we're only interested in the go-getters. The people who, born on the wrong side of the tracks, go on to make it to the top, breaking through glass ceilings as they rise. Most people don't enjoy meteroric rises through life. Life is a struggle of small steps forward and too many steps backwards. We need to think about how we speak to them. How we help their small steps forward to become a little bigger and how we will build a society where they feel safer and more hopeful.
Patrick Muttart, ex-adviser to Stephen Harper told Henry Olsen how Canadian Conservatives pictured and understood the working class vote:
"They are fiscally conservative, wanting low rates of taxation and wanting government to live within its means, but economically populist, suspicious of trade, outsourcing, and high finance. They are culturally orthodox but morally moderate, in the sense that they don’t feel their lives will change much because of how social issues play out. They are patriotic and supportive of the military, but suspicious of foreign adventures.
Most importantly, they are modest in their aspirations for themselves. They do not aspire to be “type A business owners”; they want to go to work, do what’s asked of them, not have too much stress in their lives, and spend time with their families. They want structure and stability in their lives so that things are taken care of and they don’t have to worry."
Olsen then drew up seven habits of the working class:
(1) Hope for the future
(2) Fear of the present
(3) Pride in their lives
(4) Anger at being disrespected
(5) Belief in public order
(7) Fear of rapid change.
Somewhere in that mix of attitudes is a Tory outreach to Britain's working classes.