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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Clegg and Miliband are determined to steal the 'squeezed middle' from Cameron. What's his response?

When two or three Tories are gathered together, and the conversation can tear itself away from Europe, another topic is always popular. How can we ensure a working majority at the next election? As the discussion progresses, there is always a contrast between the wide ocean of politics and the narrow waters of psephology. In politics, David Cameron is dominant. Surely that mastery will be rewarded when the voters next put their pebbles in the urn? Psephology is another matter. Will Milipede really do worse among Labour voters than Gordon Brown did? Is he not bound to pick up some left-wing Liberals?

If those propositions are true, Labour could end up with around 36 percent of the vote. So how badly will the Liberals implode? What about Ukip? According to informed estimates, and despite the new boundaries, the Tories will need a lead of five or six percent over Labour to gain an overall majority. The closer you examine the niggling details, the harder that task can seem. At this point, some Tories lose patience. Why did David Cameron fail to do the decent thing and win outright last time? On that subject, every malcontented Tory has a theory, none of which cuts deep enough; none of which is sufficiently pessimistic. We Tories have a problem with the voters, and it is not new. It goes back almost fifty years.

1964: Harold Wilson, a worthless, meretricious, contemptible figure, has deceived a lot of voters: not democracy's finest hour. Alec Home, a wholly admirable man, has fallen victim to adolescent derision, exploiting the shallowness of the age: an era of satire but no irony, in Christopher Booker's brilliant phrase. Sir Alec was a subtle ironist. Yet with all those disadvantages, the Tories still won 43.4 percent of the vote. Since then, we have only twice bettered that figure: Ted Heath in 1970 and Mrs Thatcher, narrowly, in 1979. Admittedly, Mrs T suffered from the defection of the Ulster Unionists, but that should not have mattered. Consider everything else that has happened since 1964. Home ownership and middle-class self-identication: steadily rising. Manual labour, trade union membership, municipal tenancies, working-class self-identification: steadily falling. Political demography should have been making the Tories almost impregnable. Instead, we had to rely on Labour's mistakes in order to win elections.

There is one problem with the British electoral system. Its skill in turning voting pluralities into large Parliamentary majorities often deceives the political analysts. Take, for instance, the frequent assertion that Mrs Thatcher won over the C2s: Essex man et al. This was often made by the advertising men who made a great deal of money out of their links with the Tory party. But there is no evidence that it was true. Moreover, anyone who wishes to argue that Mrs Thatcher appealed to groups of voters who did not support Mr Heath ought to start by telling us which groups of Heath supporters she alienated. Although we all know that Ted was a monstrous and disastrous curmudgeon, Mrs T never succeeded in emulating his voting percentage in 1970.

How can this be? Because most so-called political scientists are Lefties, only interested in bemoaning the failure of the working class to perform its historic duty and bring about socialism, the most interesting topic in modern political history has been grievously neglected. That topic is the failure of the British Conservative party to exploit its demographic assets.

What follows is an attempt to fill the gap by hypothesis and intuition. There have been two other developments since 1964 which worked against the Tories. The first was the decline of deference. The second, related, is the move from status to contract: the melting of traditional hierarchies in the crucible of the market-place. The modern middle-class has many opportunities which its predecessors lacked. But it has lost something which they took for granted: security of employment. A couple of generations ago, there was a dependable progression from the timid new clerk on the counting-house high stool to the prosy old fellow being presented with his carriage-clock and his pension at the age of 65. Those days are gone, irrevocably.

So has the assumption that the lower and middle-middle classes will automatically identify with their social superiors. If the Labour party had not been so linked to the trade unions and so menaced by the quasi-Marxist Socialists, it could have created the British equivalent of Roosevelt's coalition. Under Tony Blair, it almost did. In 2003/4, the Tory party commissioned some opinion research. The results were deeply depressing, and helped to convince many of those who are now prominent Cameroons that it was not enough to go on reciting Thatcherite mantras. It became clear that a lot of voters disliked and distrusted the Tories. A policy proposal would be put to them. They would say that they found it attractive. They would then be told that it was a Tory idea. In that case, they would reply, it cannot be as good as it sounds.

Tories were seen as people who did not have to worry about next month's bills or about the conditions in the local schools and hospitals: they would never dream of using them. Asked to draw a Labour politician, voters would depict a young man in a classless dark-blue suit talking into a mobile phone. Invited to draw a Tory, they would produce a fat, braying chap in green wellies. Although most of those who know him would agree that Nick Soames is one of the funniest men they had ever met, personal acquaintance can only do so much. The Tories were being portrayed as Nicholas Soames's party. That is not a route to electoral success.

This had to change, and there is a paradox. David Cameron, the first Old Etonian leader in a generation, was the agent of change. There have been some dramatic successes, especially the 2010 intake, which is full of able MPs, most of them sound right-wingers: full of traditional Tories, often from un-traditional backgrounds. But the PM has made and continues to perpetuate a serious strategic error. Compassionate Conservatism is all very well: why should the party not take the credit for doing what Conservative governments have always done? Yet there is a danger that compassionate Conservatism will come across as Conservatism for minorities.

Let us examine a lower-middle class floating voter. He is waiting on a commuter platform and the train is late again. Does this mean that he will have to get up even earlier to arrive at work on time? He cannot take any risks. His firm's latest profit figures were not good; there are rumours of more redundancies and more out-sourcing. As he frets, he has time to brood. At school, his kids seem to be learning nothing but bad language. He cannot afford to go private, and Michael Gove's reforms will be too late for his children. His mother-in-law's hip replacement has just been postponed for the second time: as if the old battleaxe was not bad-tempered enough already. He also has time to read the Daily Mail, which tells him that the country is galloping to the dogs at his expense. The government only seems to care about illegal immigrants and dole-junkies. A £26,000 cap on welfare: that is only a few thousand less than he is earning. As he fumes, he concludes that those posh boys do not understand him and his needs. If only we could find another Maggie.

When told that the government is in favour of homosexual marriage, that fellow will not be reassured. He does not want compassionate Conservatism. He would really like more money and more security, neither of which are in the government's gift at present. But he might settle for a government which seemed to be on his side. The squeezed middle, the alarm-clock classes: Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have identified these voters and are trying to pretend to be on their side. The Tories have to respond. Their success or failure in so doing will have a crucial influence on the next election.


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