Winning over the "strivers" is key to the next election

Thatcher and Blair both understood the importance of aspirational voters - but do any party leaders

The battleground for the next election is already becoming clear. The decisive electoral map involves more seats in the North of England and the key voters at the next election will be the aspirational working class and lower middle class voters. Politicians need to do more to appeal to these voters if they are to have any chance of winning an overall majority in 2015.

In the last 50 years, 11 general elections have resulted in a party gaining an overall majority. Three politicians were responsible for nine of these 11 victories and all were successful because of their appeal to the "strivers". Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Harold Wilson were all unique in their ability to appeal to aspirational voters, or those voters clumsily referred to by market research jargon as C1s and C2s. The other two leaders to have won overall majorities - Edward Heath and John Major - also had a unique aspirational appeal.

According to his biographer, the secret of the electoral success of Harold Wilson was that he was: "a reflection of what many people... were seeking: an image... of self-help, energy, efficiency and hostility to upper-class pretension and privilege. It was an image of virtue, endeavour and just reward."

Thatcher, who came from a similar aspirational background to Wilson, appealed to the same set of voters, albeit in different ways to match different times. Her appeal, based on spreading home ownership, share ownership and a belief in meritocracy chimed with the "strivers" of her time.

Blair didn't share the background of Wilson or Thatcher but did share their feel for the aspirational electors. In 2005, he argued that: "New Labour is today the party of aspiration, for middle-class and poorer families; for all. Every time we have ceded that ground in politics, we have lost. Every time we have occupied it, we've won."

Successfully appealing to aspiration is so often the key to delivering election victory in the UK, especially in key marginal seats. It was clear that neither Party at the last election had convinced sufficient numbers of aspirational voters in order to win a majority. According to Ipsos MORI, in her three election victories, Thatcher claimed an average of 40 per cent of the C2 vote (increasing the Tory share by 15 per cent in 1979). Blair averaged 46 per cent of the C2 in his three election victories, increasing the Labour share amongst C2s by 10 per cent between 1992 and 1997.

By contrast, at the last election, the Conservatives could only poll 37% of the C2 vote - only 4 per cent up on 2005. Although Labour's vote amongst the C2s had plummeted from 40 per cent at the previous election to 29% in 2010, not enough of them had turned to the Tories. "Mondeo man" didn't turn out for the Conservatives in 2010 in the same way that he had turned out for Thatcher or Blair.

Both political parties are facing different challenges in appealing to hard-working, aspirational voters. Polls show that the Conservatives are seen by a large number of respondents as "the party of the rich", who don't understand ordinary working people or people from the North of England or Scotland. The same polls, show that Labour are overly identified with trade unions, the poor and public sector workers and don't understand ambition or aspiration.

Crucially, research for Policy Exchange has shown that the country is more aspirational than ever and that appealing to this ingrained belief in meritocracy and aspiration will be a key determinant of the result of the next election. In the research, we asked what people believed that the best conception of "fairness" was. The idea that, "in a fair society, people's incomes should depend on how hard they work and how talented they are" was supported by some 85 per cent of respondents. This was a considerably greater proportion than those who supported either a free market (63 per cent) or egalitarian (41 per cent) conception of fairness.

The findings illustrate the centrality of aspiration to being successful in British politics. The aspirational lower middle class and working class, who are ambitious for themselves and their children, and willing to work hard in order to succeed, remain fundamental to electoral success in the UK. Ed Miliband, with his concept of the "squeezed middle" has begun to understand the importance of aspirational voters.

Appealing to the "strivers" will, of course, require workable policy as well as rhetoric. Issues including developing a quality state education system, reforming welfare and housing policy will be central themes.

Only by tapping in to the aspirational "strivers" will either party be able to win a majority at the next election. So far, neither party has shown itself entirely able to tap in to the aspirational feeling that meant Wilson, Thatcher and Blair could achieve electoral success.

David Skelton is deputy director of Policy Exchange.

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.