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The squeezed middle, Cameron's couples - and a tax cut solution for the Government

By Paul Goodman

John Healey was the most capable Labour Minister I faced across the Dispatch Box in the Commons.  He's standing in the Shadow Cabinet elections, and recently set out a strategic option for his Party - to make a pitch to what he calls "the squeezed middle": that's to say, "more than 7 million families with an annual income between £14,500 and £33,800".  Healey argued that this "just coping" class, under "constant pressure", is "electorally critical" - crucial swing voters, and the real "Middle Britain".

Screen shot 2010-09-30 at 13.20.16 James Forsyth, the Spectator's Political Correspondent, today looks at an overlapping group of voters - those paid between £25,000-£40,000 a year.  The Spectator doesn't put all of its current issue online, in order to encourage people to buy the magazine itself, so I can't link to the piece.  But I can try to sum it up.  Forsyth reports that last May the Conservatives gained only a three per cent swing among "lower middle-class voters — the so-called C1s. Today, this group has a household income of around £33,000."

He writes -

"Conservative candidates in marginal seats report that while a large number of working-class voters were so worried about Labour’s record on immigration that they were switching their votes, lower middle-class voters couldn’t see how their lives would be better under the Conservatives. In an era when party political loyalties are breaking down, voters tend to ask more than ever: ‘what do I get in return for my vote?’ The answer the Conservatives proffered at the last election — an invitation to join the government of Britain — proved unpersuasive.

Had Mr Cameron done anywhere near as well as John Major did with the lower middle class, there’d be no need for Liberal Democrats in government. The Conservatives must make this group again believe that they are their tribunes — the champions of their values."

In short, Forsyth says that at the election "David Cameron had no ‘people’ in the way that Margaret Thatcher did. In Birmingham, Mr Cameron and George Osborne will start to address this."  He notes Healey's squeezed middle concept, floats as a response the idea of "Cameron's couples" - and runs through policies that Conservative strategists believe will "release the hidden Tory inside": free schools, directly elected police chiefs, welfare reform (a "wedge issue") and tax cuts.

Forsyth's piece ties up with one he wrote after the budget, in which he interpreted some of Osborne's measures as part of a drive by the Chancellor "to shrink the public sector and grow the private sector".  In his latest one, he quotes Osborne's declared aim: "to support the person who leaves their house at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., goes out and does perhaps a low-paid job in order to provide for their family, and is incredibly frustrated when they see on the other side of the street the blinds pulled down and someone sitting there on a life of out-of-work benefits". 

Healey's and Forsyth's pieces should provoke questions.  Here, more or less off the top of my head, are some -

  • Is Healey's group (more than 7 million families with a precisely-defined annual income between £14,500 and £33,800) larger than Forsyth's (those paid between £25,000-£40,000 a year)?
  • On what basis did Healey and the Conservative strategists that Forsyth cites select these groups?
  • Which group is larger?
  • Where do both groups tend to be found?
  • Which is better represented in marginal seats?
  • Since the groups overlap, how sensible to think of the two as separate, if at all?
  • Should the main parties target one, both or neither?
A final point.  Forsyth suggests possible, eventual tax cuts aimed at the £20,000-£40,000 group.  Vince Cable seems to have set himself against top rate tax cuts.  The Coalition has raised thresholds for the lower paid workers.  Both Healey's and Forsyth's groups lie between.  Osborne could help them by cutting the standard rate.


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