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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser