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16 August 2013

Heresy of the Week: Middle England is a different place from the Tory heartlands

Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, has an article in the New Statesman about Britain’s economic divide. It's pretty partisan stuff, but it does contain an interesting idea. 

McDonald takes the constituencies of the 21 MPs who are full members of the Cabinet and combines them into a single entity called “Cabinetland”. His point is that the Government is led by people who don’t really understand how bad things are, because they represent parts of the country which have dodged the worst of the economic downturn: 

  • “In [Cabinetland], unemployment is 2.6 per cent. The number of people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance is down over nine per cent on last year. Youth unemployment has plummeted by 19 per cent in the last 12 months, and even over-50s unemployment is down. Each constituency has just 300 people unemployed for longer than twelve months.”

Because MPs with safer seats can afford to spend more time on national politics, they tend to climb higher up the greasy pole than colleagues in more marginal constituencies. For this reason, most of Cabinetland is situated deep within the Tory heartlands (the five Lib Dem seats being the obvious exception). 

To win a majority at the next election the Conservatives must win over the swing voters of ‘Middle England’. It is an evocative name, redolent of thatched cottages and country lanes, but it gives a misleading impression. Middle England and the Tory heartlands are not the same place at all. By and large, senior Conservatives do not represent the communities they most need to reach out to.

In a related piece for the New Statesman, Rafael Behr expands on this theme. He warns that ministers risk being led astray by their constituency mail bags:

  • “MPs for leafy constituencies say they are mired in frenzied local battles over new developments. The government’s efforts to relax planning regulations earlier this year provoked backbench fury. With Ukip poised to mop up Tory discontent, No 10 is sensitive to the charge of spraying bricks and mortar indiscriminately across the party’s electoral heartland. Once fracking is added to the mix, Cameron and Osborne are easily depicted in a conspiracy against all that is green and pleasant in England.”

It’s easy to dismiss the need for new development when you already have what you want from life:

  • “Privately, senior Tories concede that many of their most stalwart supporters have been relatively untroubled by the economic turbulence of recent years. To the retired officer in his Kentish conservatory or the Surrey banker commuting into the City, it hardly felt like there was a crisis at all – at least, until Osborne’s diggers appeared at the bottom of the garden.”

This is, however, a rather over-simplified argument. The implication that it’s only comfortable commuters who object to new development is incorrect. Furthermore, typical Tory voters are hardly immune to the effect of the economic crisis – anyone who relies on interest from their savings could tell you that.  

Nevertheless, Rafael Behr does deliver some home truths:

  • “For all the veneration of Thatcher, the Tories are miles away from repeating the Iron Lady’s record of throwing open the doors of stuffy Conservatism to new recruits.”

It is a sad fact that, in Britain today, the rate of home ownership is falling. It is hard to see how this trend can be reversed with house prices on the rise and housebuilding at historically low levels:

  • “...in Britain millions of people are being priced out of the middle-class dream. If they see Cameron taking the side of the minority who dodged the recession, they will feel priced out of ever being Tory voters, too.”


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