“Parliament is too middle class and doesn’t have the diversity that it needs to have.”
— Ed Miliband, The House Magazine, Jan 31, 2014
David Cameron’s government is not popular. An IpsosMori poll last September found that 70 per cent of voters found the prime minister “out of touch”, making him the least popular Tory leader in 35 years. Murmurings of leadership challenges have been made. The coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, look set for a slaughter. The time has come for a mixture of hard headed thinking and mandatory populism.
Populism can get the better of you. The degree of desperation in the hands of the Tories has certainly propelled the strategists into other waters. A grim and pinched Britain is now hearing the latest pet idea from the Tories: embrace egalitarianism and diminish the public school boy lustre. In fact, why not go the whole hog and rebadge the Conservative Party “The Workers’ Party”? That was very much on the cards for the party’s chairman Grant Shapps: “The Conservatives are the Workers’ party and we are on your side.” That may not have been Shapps’ idea to begin with – the backbencher MP Robert Halfon was particularly keen to get the chairman’s ear on the subject.
You know that things are not going well in Britain when talk of a “classless” society is revived. That idea was the favourite of Sir John Major, who seemed to think that class wasn’t all it was cut out to be. Shapps is going further, taking a leaf out of New World ideology. His Britain would be one “where it doesn’t matter who your parents are, where you can go as far as your talents and hard work will take you, and where work – rather than benefits – is what pays.” The target is not so much a classless Britain as working class Britain.
Working class voters are they to be wooed. They have found little cheer with their traditional political base. It would be even fair to suggest that options are thin on the ground. British Labour has seen its share of the working class vote fall from over half to less than a third. For too long they have relied on what Peter Mandelson called those “northern, horny-handed, dirty overcalled people”. Their leader, Ed Miliband, is all too aware, and is keen to push a Disraeli theme leading up to elections next year: that of One Nation.
An electoral battle is being fought in a country that is, in the view of conservative activist David Skelton, “increasingly becoming a working class nation” (New Statesman, Feb 6). This may be as much a case of sentiment as opposed to reality, but Britons have been in a tight squeeze for some time. The middle class is finding that salaries are not going as far as they used to.
According to the findings of the think tank British Future, up to two thirds of the British public see it that way, while a third of professionals count themselves as working class. For some in Labour, this presents an opportunity. Working class identities could mean more votes, a move away from the elitist badging of their opponents.
Their critics, like Skelton, see it differently. Even as Britain is becoming more working class, the politicians who represent them are becoming more middle class. Machine politics was never pretty, but all major parties have become cosmic in their remoteness. The noisy UK Independence Party might be mocked for being in touch with the lunatic fringe, but its growing popularity is no accident.
Many working class voters are simply not bothered turning up to the polling both. In 1992, 75 per cent of the skilled working class and 77 per cent of the unskilled working class voted. By 2010, that number had fallen to 58 per cent and 57 per cent respectively.
A push is coming from a few quarters amongst the Tories to insinuate themselves, appealingly, into the minds of the estranged working class voter. Skelton’s Renewal campaign is one such effort. The organisation is calling for links with trade unionists to be forged and a higher minimum wage, both deemed problematic with traditional Tories.
Central to finding appeal, at least according to Renewal, is the care needed to avoid a deal with Nigel Farage’s UKIP. Some Tory MPs have suggested that victory will be assured by “adding Tory and Ukip votes together”. Skelton is far from thrilled by the prospect. “Advocates of a pact forget that voters can’t simply be moved around like pawns on a chess board and that many Ukip supporters are using the party as a mid-term vehicle of protest.”
There is nothing new about pushing conservatism down the road of bread and butter politics. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a milk snatcher to some – to others, she was a handbag economist, reminding voters about the business sense she learned when growing up. A country’s finances might well be those of a household – you could not spend more than you had.
The working class have tended to be their worst enemy. Aspirational voters tend to succumb to the lure of Tory magic if it is well timed and administered in calculated doses. Fashions may well prove to be lies, but they can still be convincing. If there is a pact the Tories will be wishing to have ahead of 2015, it will be one between the ruthless and the gullible.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org