Under both Gordon Brown and George Osborne, the Budget has become the ultimate expression of the electoral priorities of a government. George Osborne’s giveaways to wealthy pensioners are truly telling of what the Chancellor worries about for 2015. The answer, it seems, is the Tory base.
All parties face a fundamental choice at elections between managing decline by trying to cling on to as much of their existing vote as possible or shaping a new electoral coalition. New Labour successfully won re-election twice by managing its declining vote share, whilst President Obama created a new electoral coalition between 2008 and 2012.
The big choice for Conservative strategy was whether to reassemble their 2010 coalition of support and craft a policy offer to bring them back, or to look to a new pool of voters, particularly Labour-inclined blue collar voters who either voted Labour in 2010 or sat out the election whilst still self-identifying as Labour. These are Robert Halfon’s voters. They are the voters that Jon Cruddas, Labour’s blue collar brahmin, was brought in to capture. Their opinions might be considered conservative on matters of immigration or welfare but progressive on public services or bashing the banks.
Blue collar voters hold the key to breaking out of the mid-30s poll ratings that currently make for the ceiling of Tory support or the floor of Labour’s. By increasing turnout amongst this group, Labour can reach the 40s. Equally, by flipping Labour’s working class support, the Tories could head for a majority. Beyond bread (beer) and circuses (bingo), the adoption of Halfonism would have been a truly dangerous strategic move by Osborne against Labour. Truly radical “Little Guy” Conservatism comes with a blend of Jesse Norman’s attacks on crony capitalism, Boris Johnson’s verve for housebuilding and Robert Halfon’s embrace of trade unionism.
If you want to know what Labour truly fears then there it is.
But “Beer and Bingo” is at best superficial engagement with blue collar voters falsely premised on the belief that they can be bought off with a good night out, rather than see their deeply held concerns about schools, hospitals, wages and housing addressed. What’s more, it risks reinforcing the perception that many voters have with the Tory high command as out of touch and lacking empathy.
Osborne has instead sought to manage decline. By seeking to win back Conservative-minded pensioners, Osborne aims only to bring Tory poll numbers out of the low 30s and into the mid-30s. He seeks to replay 2010. As Mike Smithson of Political Betting noted, some 58 per cent of UKIP supporters are over-55 and the vast majority of them are Tory 2010 voters.
Thus the Budget will produce more than a sugar high for Tory poll ratings. It should lock in a 2-3 per cent increase at a cost to UKIP that lasts through 2015. But it comes at the cost of the other more interesting, and potentially more rewarding, option: the blue collar appeal. Beer and bingo were crumbs from the table. Slashing income tax, building (as well as selling) council houses and raising the minimum wage to £7 was the alternative.
But Osborne made his choice and the Tory ceiling of the mid-30s is set for next year – and with it their last hopes for a majority.