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  1. Long reads
27 September 1999

In search of the core voter

We asked Robert Chesshyre to seek out Labour's "alienated" natural supporters. It took him time and,

By Robert Chesshyre

The cover of my copy of Orwell’s Decline of the English Murder shows a man in a flat cap reading the News of the World. His head is framed by the frosted glass of a snug bar, and a pint of mild stands on the table. He is clearly intended to represent Orwell’s “steady” or “respectable” working man. A few months before Orwell penned the book’s title essay, such men came home from the war in their millions to elect the Attlee government.

Until the apotheosis of Margaret Thatcher, the man in the snug remained the emblematic Labour voter. Labour leaders might have been middle-class intellectuals, but the party’s culture of brotherhood and its political agenda were based on the working man’s interests – the welfare state, collective bargaining and heavy industry.

Today – due to vast changes in employment – such men are an endangered species, to be found chiefly on reservations near Barnsley and represented on the national stage by John Prescott (and even he, much to the disgust of his father, now calls himself middle class). Psephologists label them “core” or “traditional” voters, and the bright young things of the Millbank Tendency are accused of taking them for granted. Be fair: how does one keep in touch with people who haven’t even got mobiles?

That doesn’t mean they don’t get the blame when things go wrong, as they did when they stayed home from the European and Welsh Assembly elections. But the calculation is that, essentially, they are loyal souls who can be relied upon when the time comes to return to the trenches to guarantee new Labour five more glorious years. Or can they? John Monks, TUC general secretary, accuses the government of treating them like “embarrassing elderly relatives” at a family party, and Peter Hain, Foreign Office minister, suggested in an NS interview that new Labour was being “gratuitously offensive to its natural supporters”.

The charges are that the government woos Mail rather than Mirror readers; cosies up to fat cats; rides roughshod over local interests; eats in fancy restaurants and takes grand holidays (oh, for Harold Wilson’s humble Scilly Isles cottage and the flying ducks above his mantlepiece); in short, it has grown distant from its roots.

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Not so, replies new Labour; we may talk “right” for tactical reasons but we act “left”. Look at the polls – they’ve hardly shifted. You can’t cry “murder” until you’ve found a body. The low turnout for the European and the Welsh Assembly elections was caused by election fatigue and/or contentment. Consider the minimum wage; smaller infant school classes; the expansion of childcare; the working families tax credit. All these benefit core voters, while the middle classes pay for them through higher indirect taxation.

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The best way to resolve the argument was clearly to meet Labour voters. But where could I find these core voters? I hadn’t time to visit the Barnsley homelands, but Labour folk, I reasoned, must gather somewhere south of Watford to discuss private finance initiatives and transferable votes. I tried outer London, inner London, Southampton, various other places where I was told there used to be “a strong membership”.

When I phoned a Labour branch in east London, a recorded voice announced that the call-minder memory was full and could handle no more messages. I got dead lines; answering machines on which I left despairing messages; a beauty parlour. I tried Ken Livingstone, who did call back. No, he didn’t know of any “pubs or clubs” where the core drank. He did not, he added piously, go to such places himself. The London Labour Party faxed me four names, but that wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

One local party man was keen to help. He suggested a couple of opportunities to meet members, but called back twice to cancel the arrangements. He had clearly referred the matter upwards. “I think they‘re wary of freedom of speech. I think they want to orchestrate it a bit more.”

I filled the time calling academics. The consensus seemed to be that, while – as the polls show – there is no immediate cause for alarm, in the long run new Labour would be wise to cherish the core voter more energetically. “Blair’s new voters are not primarily campaigners,” said Patrick Seyd of Sheffield University. “You need old-style activists, particularly in traditional seats.”

Old-style activists? I called Tony Benn, who, sounding like a gloomily triumphant Eeyore, said: “It all started to go wrong with the election of the Labour government. I get two or three letters a day from people who have been in the party all their lives – not necessarily on the left – leaving because they no longer identify with it. Electors have no choice, so they won’t bother to vote.”

Richard Hoggart, 81 last weekend and a distinguished chronicler of northern working-class life, was scarcely more cheerful. We are sliding, he said, from democracy to populism – a best-seller culture, in which Jeffrey Archer is a more important author than George Eliot because he sells more books. Hoggart had been a member of a government panel set up to encourage reading. A fellow member suggested the Spice Girls should display the slogan “Have a Good Read” across their “ample bosoms”.

I asked if it was naive to believe that cradle socialists of the old school embodied vanished values. “Not at all. Talk of decency and tolerance nowadays, and they think you’ve gone round the bend. The moment you speak like that, someone will accuse you of being sentimental.”

I was pretty gloomy myself by the time I made contact with Arthur Millington of Swindon South. He could, he said, assemble half a dozen members one evening.

Swindon is not Barnsley but it is, I discovered, an accurate political barometer. Historically a railway town and once very old Labour, it developed rapidly after the arrival of the M4 in 1971, and its population surged to 160,000. It embraced Thatcherism, and returned a Tory MP from 1983 until 1997. At the last election, it was split into two constituencies, both of which had comfortable Labour majorities.

It is affluent without being rich; there are no braying financiers slurping Friday-night champagne. It is HQ for building societies, mobile phone companies and financial service groups, and it builds Honda and Rover cars. Unemployment is next to nothing, but many of the better-paid jobs are filled by commuters who live in the Cotswolds or 40 minutes away in Bristol or Oxford.

Swindon South, where I met Labour Party members, is “newer” Labour than Swindon North, which is where the railway works used to be and the car factories now are. The group that Millington, a retired civil servant, had assembled were white collar and well established – a social-work team leader, a legal adviser, an environmental chemist and an IT project manager. A teacher joined us briefly. There were four men and two women, all incomers and part of Swindon’s post-railway boom.

They were a far cry from Millbank new Labour – none of the men wore a tie or a suit. One laughed at how they had been made to carry mobile phones and wear suits during the 1997 election campaign. Socially, they would be far more comfortable in Neil Kinnock’s company than Tony Blair’s and they were, I guessed, as typical of modern (rather than “new”) Labour as Orwell’s working man had been of the postwar party. Cloth caps and mufflers have long since given way to jeans and plaid shirts.

The constituency has 500 members, about 50 down since 1997. The European election result had been appalling: the turnout was under 20 per cent, dropping to 10 per cent in “traditional” Labour wards. The Conservatives “won” both Swindon constituencies. It had, the group admitted, been hard to mobilise support. Swindon makes tough demands on activists – one-third of the council is elected every year – and many felt too exhausted to get stuck into yet another election. “You can have too much democracy,” said one man.

Despite the apathy over the European elections, the group believed Labour voters were happy with the government’s “hedged” position on the euro. Too many local jobs depended on Europe for Euroscepticism to be popular. One man suggested that Swindon-based companies ought to take a stronger pro-euro lead.

“This is a very pragmatic, down-to-earth town. If it’s in your interests, you’re for it. Altruism is not high on the list,” said another.

The consensus was: “If there were a straw poll today, Swindon would be really pleased. People are going to work, earning money, taking foreign holidays and improving their homes.” The group didn’t object to the “Middle England” tenor of Labour spin, arguing that it isn’t aimed at party members. They were delighted by economic policy, and Gordon Brown’s ears should have been burning: “He’s brilliant, one hell of a switched-on guy. He has managed the economic cycle as no one has been able to do in 50 years.”

They recited the help there has been for the less well-off and argued that when the working families tax credit kicks in, even the most jaundiced supporter will have to acknowledge the government’s achievements. The economy apart, most of the group had at least one gripe. One said: “New Labour encompasses too many things for all of us to sign up to all of them.” One was unhappy that there was no blueprint yet for the reformed Lords; the Blair lifestyle got some stick; and Prescott was seen as a counterweight – “We love Blair because he won, but he is not ‘one of us’.”

Jack Straw disappointed many – curfews on children and the treatment of asylum-seekers were mentioned. The Freedom of Information Bill was derided as “a bill to preserve the culture of secrecy”.

One man drew a distinction between the running of the government and the running of the party. “I accept that the government has to do things I am not happy with, but new Labour doesn’t have the right to change my party without me having a say,” he said. He had lived recently in South Wales and objected to the high-handed way in which the party hierarchy had dictated policy and imposed Alun Michael as Assembly leader.

As we broke up, one of the group stressed that they were basically content. They had voiced their doubts because they trusted the New Statesman. They were not going to stage their arguments in public or talk to reporters who might do a hatchet job. “We would have been ‘on message’ for the Daily Mail.”

“Bloody hell,” said one, “look at what the government has already done. The alternative – Thatcherism/Majorism – doesn’t bear thinking about.”

The author writes for the “Daily Telegraph” magazine