I'm the Squeezed Middle and I know who's doing the squeezing

Political leaders look on sadly but what are they really doing to change things?

It's not fun in the Squeezed Middle, trying to cope with Alarm Clock Britain as part of a Hard Working Family. But it's nice to know that our politicians really care about us. Care about us enough to think up slogans to patronise us, anyway.

So, here I am, back in full-time employment, though I've begun to realise why the Big Society isn't going to work. It's the same reason why so many working people aren't politically active. It's not so much apathy or class; it's just that doing actual hard work makes you tired. So tired that you can't be bothered to do anything other than fall asleep into a warm plate of food every evening, brushing the mouldy crumbs into your mouth for breakfast some hours later.

Work seems blissful after a time of unemployment. You start to become satisfied with less: just work in itself is a reward, let alone the money.

Obviously, given that you don't get a P45 straight away, it's the joys of emergency tax, but that's a small price to pay. I say "small price" but it's an enormous price to pay, if you're not getting paid that much in the first place, but that's beside the point: you get to look forward to money back at some point in the distant future, tucked away for a rainy day at 0 per cent interest. Lucky old you. No complaining, now.

I'm not complaining. I like working. I like work. I like money. I like being paid for doing something other than sitting around the house all day, even if, as it turns out, my annual salary is somewhat less than what I was earning in my first ever full-time job, 13 years ago.

Is that failure? Well, no: it's success just to have a job at all, nowadays. There are so many people who don't, and who have no reasonable short-term prospects of getting one, it seems churlish to put your hand up and ask if you could take home some half-decent cash as well.

But this is where we are, those of us who are in the Squeezed Middle, or well below the middle. Ed Miliband would like to help us. Nick Clegg would like to help us. David Cameron would like to help us. At least, I think they would. They say they would. They look at us, sadly, like you'd stare at a mangy old mongrel faithfully limping behind its owner to the vets that last time.

But in terms of actually doing something about us? Well, things aren't quite so clear cut.

I like the idea of tax cuts for the low paid. I have no problem with tax cuts -- if the right taxes get cut. Increasing the personal allowance is a fine and progressive thing to do, and is to be welcomed. But it's like chucking a cork to someone who's drowning and expecting them to say thank you. It might be something, but it's not going to solve any big problems.

The other tactic, of course, is to get those of us who are in work to hate those who aren't in work -- to set us against each other. The benefit cap is part of that strategy, to make those of us who are struggling to pay bills despise those of us who have some of our bills paid for us -- and it has the completely accidental side effect of kicking poor people out of nice areas where affluent Tory-leaning voters are entitled to live.

Rather flimsy statistics released last week about immigrants were part of the same mission: make the less well off concentrate on the undeserving poor and foreigners, and they might forget who's really screwing them.

Does it work? It might, if we let it happen. As I've said, it's exhausting trying to keep up with politics when you're away from a PC all day, when you're too knackered when you get home to glue yourself to Newsnight and digest the issues of the day. Tempting, perhaps, to blame the family on benefits across the road, or the immigrants next door, for why life sucks so much. Tempting, but wrong.

I may be the Squeezed Middle, but I know who's doing the squeezing. And I know just how much all three of our political parties are really doing to change that situation: not a great deal at all.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.