Friday 15 January 2010

Has Cameron abandoned the middle?, asks the Spectator

Gordon Brown thinks so, according to a Times report, previewing the argument of his first major political speech of the new year on Saturday.

And there is a very trenchant topical commentary in The Spectator this week, on precisely that theme, from Ross Clark. (The online version is behind the Speccie paywall for a week, so I will quote from it rather minimally in discussing the argument it makes).

The contents' page trail says "Dave cold-shoulders the middle classes. His policies seem to prefer toffs and paupers", which is a punchy but accurate summary of Clark's thesis. (Labour voices would doubtless be challenged for using any such language, through cries of "class war" but the Clark piece is a reminder that the political right perenially thinks in class terms, being especially acutely conscious of any real or perceived threat to the interests of the middle-classes).

Clark argues that:

It is going to be a government for the rich and for the poor, but with rather less on offer to those in the middle. For the rich, there is an eventual cut on inheritance tax to look forward to. It seems as if the Tories might well enter the general election campaign with just two firm tax-cutting pledges: inheritance tax and stamp duty on share transactions - an equally juicy offering for the wealthy.

For the poor, there is the health premium and the pupil premium ...

For those in the middle, it is much harder to discern in the policy published so far any convincing reason to vote Conservative


Clark's explanation for the Tory approach revolves very heavily around the "personal character" and background of David Cameron, and what Clark calls his "preference for surrounding himself with a small band of like-minded folk" with an Eton or other prestigious public school to west London trajectory, and who "attend the same parties".

You may well recall that it would, of course, be quite illegitimate for Labour MPs, the New Statesman, Fabian Society or Guardian to attempt such a sociological analysis of any Cameron clique or to consider whether background might explain political instincts. However, it is clearly fair game for The Spectator in explaining why "Cameron shows little affinity for the self-made men of the Tory party, the gritty northern and Midlands' industrialists and car salesman who became the backbone of the party during the Thatcher years".

Indeed, Clark breaks another 'taboo' (again, for the left at least) in asking "why is the Conservative party turning its back on the class which has provided its core vote for 30 years". All of this is a reminder of how central the politics of class were to Thatcherism, both in the "peasants revolt" against the patrician and paternalist Tory elite


What Clark suggests, then, is the potential for an anti-Cameron backlash from the 'angry middle', a key attitudinal segment identified in the Fabian Society's segmentation of attitudes in our research on attitudes to inequality for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Clark almost precisely voices the result of this very striking poll finding from the Fabian research, in which people were asked whether those at the top, the bottom or the middle have it toughest in Britain today:

Thinking about the situation in Britain today, and taking everything into account, how much do you agree or disagree with the following statements:

Ordinary people in the middle have a really tough time overall, because they work hard, but without the rewards of the rich and without the benefits of the poor.
Agree: 79% Disagree 9%; Neither agree nor disagree 10%

Rich people at the top have a really tough time overall, because they work hard, with more stress and more responsibility than other groups.
Agree: 7%; Disagree 75%; Neither agree nor disagree 15%

Poor people at the bottom have a really tough time overall, because they work hard, but without the rewards of the rich or the middle, and with more stress and anxiety than other groups.
Agree: 59% Disagree 24%; Neither agree nor disagree 15%

So the British public do think it is much tougher to be poor than rich. But, overall, we think its tougher being in the middle than being poor. That 79% concern for the tough time of those in the middle is very much a cross-class concern: 79% of ABC1 and 79% of C2DE voters agreed.

That may partly be explained by the very striking finding that almost everybody, right across the income range, tends to think of themselves as somewhere broadly 'in the middle' of the income range. The "psychological middle" is almost everybody.

That so many of us take the 'view from the middle' suggests three reasons why Cameron's political strategy may make him vulnerable here.

Firstly, there is a serious political risk for those making the argument that the inequality which matters is that between the bottom and the middle. Yes, for free-marketeers and anti-egalitarians, this does protect the top from being put under scrutiny. But by definition, it makes it harder to empathise with those struggling in the middle. Their ambitions and grievances are not recognised if concern about their relative position compared to those at the top has been ruled out of court. Indeed, several of the more thoughtful New Labour ministers came to realise after 2001 that the (similar) Blairite formula on inequality risked fracturing New Labour's own electoral coaltion in this way. And the 2009 Fabian attitudes research found that "the gap" which was most salient for people was not that between the bottom and the top, "but rather the gap between the middle and those at the very top - the 'super rich' rather than just 'the rich'.

Secondly, some "progressive Conservatives" fear that a clash with the middle could prove a defining argument and are very aware of this as a discussion they have yet to seriously begin, in the party or publicly. They will find some support from the centrists at Demos for taking on the "sharp elbows of the middle class", and from some on the left too. But the Cameron team fear a middle-class backlash if the pro-poor premiums were substantive, which is essential to stake any substantive claim to be 'progressive'.

In an age of austerity, £2 - 3 billion for a 'pupil premium' will have to come from 'leafy suburbs', as CentreForum have argued. There would be a political revolt from the Tory backbenchers. As Richard Reeves of Demos, who supports the policy writes that "But the pupil premium will be an early test of Cameron's progressive credentials. Once his backbenchers and the right-wing leader writers wake up to the fact that the taxes of "hard-working families" are going to be used to give an advantage in the education market to the children of the "feckless, idle poor", all hell will break loose. This is why strategists know the policy has to be pushed through fast, during the honeymoon".

My prediction: very little blood will be spilt. It is easy to see why there will be strong pressure to neuter any progressive pro-poor content, and how that may well prevail. (Recall the threat of a major backbench revolt of the Thatcher years which vetoed the replacement of student grants with loans in the 1980s).

Thirdly, all of this reflects why the Fabian Society's recent Solidarity Society book stresses the strong evidence as to why universalism matters, to protect provision for the poor. Clark's complaints about the cutting back of middle-class tax credits reflect the finding: it may seem sensible to 'target' resources at the poorest, but in fact provision for the poor will also decline because there will be no insulation from a middle-class backlash. So "services for the poor become poor services" as Richard Titmuss famously warned. The benevolent paternalism of what Clark calls Cameron's "romantic notion of the poor" risks failing as an anti-poverty strategy too.

As The Solidarity Society argues, the way out of this trap to combine pro-poor redistribution within universal (and non-segregating) institutions. That is the lesson of comparing the robustly popular NHS with residualised social housing. And the "progressive universalism" approach which New Labour has followed can give a strong redistributionist tilt to a universal system, so that all of those who contribute get something back, with more going to those in greatest need.


So the battle for the 'middle' is taking centre-stage. Certainly, in all of this, it is worth asking the question 'whose middle is it anyway', and how far the real or various mythical middles coincide.

In the media, the Middle often means the Daily Telegraph's "coping classes", the relatively affluent who feel poor as they struggle to pay the private school fees. Again, all of the classic 'angry middle' arguments are voiced in a series which discusses looking at families earning around £88,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the TUC have argued that life in the real middle for Britain's average earners, are therefore often overlooked. It may be that Gordon Brown's attempts to bring together social mobility and social justice are intended to address this.

Whose middle it is will certainly matter, for the battle for the middle looks set to be well and truly joined as the election year begins.


Newmania said...

Its way way too late for that you are talking about me and my people now .We do not vote for socialists

I think when you use the phrase midde class you shoudl clarify what you mean.You have previously used a defition that I argued was absurd.
Disagree by all means but do be clear about who you are discussing otherwise it will be what we call lying.

Diana Smith said...

This is one key reason why I think the National Care Service proposals need to be be much better understood.

The middle classes do care about leaving an inheritance, but most will not benefit from inheritance tax allowance changes.

The major threat to passing on something to the next generation, and the real slap in the face for having been provident and saved for your old age, - all middle class pre-occupations - is that the increasing costs of care will wipe out any savings.

This will become increasingly important for more families as the Health service finds efficiency savings to keep itself afloat, by ensuring people are discharged from hospital care promptly.

The comprehensive proposal for funding a National Care service is as strong a socialist idea as the National Health service, - but it works because it meets the unmet needs of the middle classes.