Greg Clark MP: It’s not all about ‘shirkers’ and ‘strivers’ – we must be the party of ordinary working people
Greg Clark is Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Tunbridge Wells. Most Tuesdays he will be writing this new 'Letter from a Treasury Minister' for ConservativeHome readers. Follow Greg on Twitter.
Politics is polar – left versus right; liberal versus authoritarian; europhile versus eurosceptic. But out in the real world, and to the frequent bewilderment of the political class, most people decline to conform to the archetypes that others invent for them.
Take the debate over welfare reform, in which, supposedly, the country is polarised between the ‘shirkers’ and the ‘strivers’.
Earlier this month, Labour’s Liam Byrne told the House of Commons that the debate should not be reduced to a “basic division between Britain’s shirkers and strivers.” However, few have done more than Mr Byrne has to introduce the word ‘shirker’ to the political lexicon, for instance in a speech to the LSE last year or in his 2011 speech to the Labour conference.
Leaving Labour hypocrisy to one side, we need to be aware that worklessness is a complex problem. No doubt there are those who do choose benefits over work. But, as Iain Duncan Smith has shown, welfare dependency is characterised, for the most part, by a tangle of root causes, each of which needs to be unpicked – for instance, by making work pay, improving literacy and dealing with the impact of social breakdown.
If talk about ‘shirkers’ is too simplistic, then what about the ‘strivers’ who are the heroes, not the zeroes, of the tale?
There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a striver. In fact, strivers deserve our highest admiration and support. People who are determined to work exceptionally hard to improve their situation, to push themselves constantly for as long as it takes, are the drivers of economic and social progress. These are the people who start up companies; who lead their communities; who “fill”, as Rudyard Kipling had it, “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.” Our party, in particular, should be the one that celebrates their achievements and makes it possible for them to achieve even more.
But – whisper it quietly – not everyone is, nor wants to be, a striver. What many people want from life is not a relentless struggle for advancement, but a reasonable working day, in which they can do a good job, but still have time for friends and family.
Not being a striver doesn’t make you a shirker – it’s simply a matter of working to live, not living to work.
Last year, Policy Exchange published Northern Lights, a landmark report into how parties can connect with voters beyond their core support. As part of the YouGov polling undertaken for the project, people were asked to give their verdict on the labels that politicians use to describe the general public. Table 17 on page 44 gives the results:
As you can see from the figures not many people identify strongly with the striver label. They’re even less likely to see themselves as ‘aspirational’ or ‘upwardly mobile’. The most popular description by far is ‘ordinary working people, trying to get on in life.’
What this shows is that most people identify with plain language and modest ambitions. For the mainstream majority, ‘ordinary’ is not a dirty word.
What does this mean for Conservatives? A great deal.
We must be the party of ordinary working people. The party of people who want a decent job to support themselves and their families; the security of a home of their own where they can be stable and settled; reliable back-up from well-run, caring public services; and enough money left in their pay packets to afford a car, a holiday, savings for a rainy day and a reasonable pension in retirement.
These are not the demands of those who think the world owes them a living. It is an attitude to life distinguished by quiet responsibility, mutual reliance and family loyalties. That which is asked of government is to all it can to provide a shield from risk and turbulence – instead of adding to life’s uncertainties.
As a party we must show that we understand these instincts just as much as those of the strivers. After all, these are values that can be justly, and approvingly, described as conservative.
I believe that, in this respect, we have a powerful story to tell.
The actions we are pursuing in government – whether paying down the deficit; keeping interest rates on mortgages low; safeguarding spending on the NHS; replacing failing schools with well-run academies; freezing council tax and cutting fuel duty – accord with what we owe to the ordinary working people of this country.
While other parties stand for recklessness in economic policy and irresponsibility in social policy, the Conservative Party must always do what it says on the tin.