For years now, political party managers have insisted on dividing the electorate up into obscure categories and focusing on just one in the hope that if they can be targeted in the key marginal consistencies that decide elections and hit them with as many leaflets and facile speeches as parties can muster, then victory at the polls is assured. The 1992 election had it’s ‘Mondeo Man’, 1997 centred around the mythical ‘Worcester Woman’ and pundits spend most of the 2010 campaign spouting some shit about people living near motorway service stations.
The two newest labels – Labour’s “Squeezed Middle” and Clegg’s “Alarm Clock Britain” amount to much the same thing – people on middle incomes squeezed by tax and who don’t have the luxury of the large income of the those above them or the ‘security’ that a life on benefits supposedly provides. Clegg hopes that giving them a £700 tax cut by 2015 will help him claw back some of the support that his party has haemorrhaged over the past few months.
For a start, this strategy posits an incredibly cynical, simplified and thus very patronising view of how voters decide on which party to support. It reduces politics in all its nuance and complexity to how much money people have in their wallets. It assumes that people don’t care about whether their gain is someone else’s loss. The Coalition has not especially subtly contrasted the hard working people who get up at the crack of dawn with the benefit claimants which it paints as spending all day in bed; again perpetuating the myth that those who don’t do a normal nine to five working day are somehow inferior and in their position through their own lack of motivation rather than a combination of circumstances beyond their own control. Cutting to housing benefits and forcing genuinely sick claimants of incapacity off benefits via unfair medical tests will help pay for the tax cuts. This is not to say that those in the middle of the income scale are not in need and should not be helped, but the money used to do so will be moving in the wrong direction – from the poor to the working poor, rather than from the rich to both.
Nor will the ‘squeezed middle’ be making a net gain: Cuts to state funding of childcare will mean that working parents will start 2012 £500 worse off. Cameron and Clegg would then still have three years to claw back the other £200 before the middling folk are losing out, and the opportunities for them to do so seem limitless: Public sector job cuts, the abolition of the EMA for the mini-middlers and huge cuts to council funding, impacting on a whole range of front-line services.
Both Cameron, Clegg and Miliband only need to look at Labour’s time in government to know that carrying on the trend of focusing on a specific demographic is a bad long-term political strategy. Labour had an obsession throughout it’s thirteen years in power about not doing anything to offend the middle classes that it believed were so central to its electoral strategy: this meant that it pursued policies like the abolition of the 10p rate that hammered its core vote.
Politicians cannot please everyone all of the time, but the opposite course of action both parties seem determined to follow – focusing attention on just one group at the expense of others – only serves to shirk a more difficult but more noble task: to build a country where a basic level of fairness and social justice offers the opportunity for everyone – whether they belong to a key electoral demographic or not – a chance to thrive.