Why did Labour abandon its focus on the “squeezed middle”?
This is one of the most puzzling political questions of the last Parliament. For the phrase so perfectly summed up the status and feelings of the country’s most important block of voters – the open-minded C1/C2 families of provincial England that dominate the country’s swing seats.
Squeezed middle C1/C2 voters are often overlooked but they are decisive in elections. They make up more than half the electorate in the vast majority of the English swing seats that Labour needs to win to secure a workable majority. But Labour has been steadily losing these voters’ support since Tony Blair left office. Getting them back will require serious change.
There is good news and bad news for Labour as it seeks to attract their support once again. On the positive side, it is clear that C1/C2 voters are not lost forever. Extensive Policy Exchange polling reveals not only that nearly half of these voters say they would consider a Labour vote, but that many of their stated values are close to those they say they perceive to be Labour values.
Given a long list of options with which they could describe their own values, C1/C2 voters in our polling named four above all: family; fairness; hard work; and decency. Of these, family and hard work were by far the most important – and the way they look at politics is heavily influenced by these two values. Encouragingly for the Labour Party, C1/C2 voters said they thought Labour’s values included family, fairness and hard work. Knowing the public is at least in sympathy with your values is a good place to start.
However, Labour has been losing these voters for a reason. Fundamentally, squeezed middle voters do not think that Labour is on their side. Ask who the Party chiefly seems to represent and C1/C2 voters – along with much of the rest of the population – are clear: those on low pay and benefits, and trade unionists. You cannot accuse the public of missing the point. Under Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, the Labour Party has increasingly defined itself increasingly as being a voice for those on benefits.
This is a serious problem for Labour and it is dragging the party down in the polls. While many Labour voices reject virtually any changes to the welfare state, squeezed middle voters care deeply about welfare reform. Our research showed that, by 64 per cent to 22 per cent, C1 voters in marginal seats believe that the welfare state is too generous. C2 voters in marginal seats believe the same by 61 per cent to 23 per cent. While C1/C2 voters in marginals put reforming welfare towards the top of their list of policy priorities, few believe this is a Labour priority.
Furthermore, in describing a country that is mired in poverty as a result of callous Government cuts, many Labour voices describe a world that does not ring true to C1/C2 voters – people that are not poor but not rich and that carefully watch everything they spend. Clearly poverty exists in this country and the parties have a moral duty to tackle it; that is not the point. The point is that too many people within the wider Labour movement talk as if there was nothing in the country but wealth or extreme poverty. To them it is as if squeezed middle families have no serious problems worth worrying about.
In recent years, as well as losing touch with key voters on these issues, the Party has also had little to say about other important policy priorities – for example, the tax burden of C1/C2 voters, how to make public services work for families that are relatively comfortably off but that still rely on them, or amending human rights legislation to make laws fairer (and make them seen to be fairer). Each of these things are felt very strongly by squeezed middle voters.
In rebuilding the Labour Party, the next leader needs to focus on the squeezed middle as it once looked like Ed Miliband was going to do. Labour’s crisis is not existential – yet. While there is clearly broad public sympathy for what the Party has traditionally stood for, it is clear that many voters think that the Party no longer represents them. One of the most powerful questions in politics is “whose side are you on?” If anything is worth putting on a stone tablet, it is this question.
This blog originally appeared in Total Politics