Middle England: The Land Labour Left Behind

For many years now, the Labour Party’s electoral strategy has been one primarily of defence; namely, how can we hold off the advances of UKIP in the North and the SNP in Scotland. As of last week, it became clear that Labour’s overworked electoral analysts must contend with another front – the newly cast battleground of Wales, a region Labour has won since 1914 but which threatens the first Conservative insurgency since 1852. Yet whilst Labour’s targeting analysts cipher off investment to reengage the party with these perennially disregarded hinterlands, they have all but abandoned the one place that actually decides the General Election: Middle England. For Labour, this used to be the sole battleground; to enter Westminster, a Labour leader had to convince the unaligned and apathetic in these bellwether seats that they could bear the burden of their aspiration. As much as Labour are now looking over their shoulders at the disintegration of their own marrow, glassy-eyed to their continued pleas for a change of policy on Europe and Immigration, this electoral necessity has not changed. In the same way that the ‘swing states’ of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania decide the keys to the White House, the United Kingdom hosts its own motley collection of ‘swing states’ which Labour must gain. Granted, they manage to conjure less glamour with their modest titular: Telford, Bolton West, Wolverhampton South West, Basildon and Billericay. But their effects on UK elections are no less fateful and their seduction no less rewarding.

And so, we come to the soupy, soundbite–riddled territory of what we call Middle England, a term with no academic consensus. Even its great offshoots, ‘Mondeo Man’, ‘Worcester Woman’, ‘Granada Women’, or, my favourite, ‘the ‘Peddledash People’ (a shorthand term used by the Conservative Party to describe the suburban couples of the South–East and the West Midlands), are difficult to ascertain. Yet continually we are reminded of this groups importance; FT claimed that Brexit was driven by Middle England, the Daily credited Middle England with ‘rising up’ and ‘saving’ the UK from Ed Miliband in 2015, and even the BBC’s ‘The Thick of It’ satirised rather wonderfully the politico’s obsession with the matter in Series 1, Episode 2, where MP Hugh Abbott orders his focus groups to be reduced to one woman called ‘Mary’ because he believes she represents ‘core Middle England.’ Perhaps Nick Inman put it best: ‘Middle England is rather like Middle Earth: we know everything about it, except where it is.’ And certainly, it is understood better as a social demographic position than a geographical position. Middle England is white, (lower) middle-class, hard-working, upwardly mobile and staunchly moral. They despise Laurie Penny. They don’t read the Guardian. They’ve never been to Scotland, Wales or Newcastle, but they have been to Ibiza and Mallorca. And in 1992, they plumped for a grey man and a Conservative Party which had bashed the miners, brought in the poll tax and couldn’t give a hoot about mass unemployment. Most importantly however, they are the 25 percent of the population not wedded not surgically wedded to one of the main parties – and who happen to live in bellwether seats.

Middle England – Britain’s True ‘Political Class’

For Major, wherever it this chimerical bounty of unallied and untapped votes lay, it was to be ruthlessly targeted. Here was an electorate unfettered by trade union influence and imbued the twin pillars of ‘aspiration conservatism’ – low-taxation and home ownership. Despite not overtly courting the term Middle England, Major’s campaign was tailored for her capture. At the Conservative Party in 1992, a Major eloquently answered the (choreographed) question: ‘What does England mean to you, Mr Major?’ In reply, Major hailed ‘lukewarm beer, the sound of a cricket ball against willow, old dears cycling to church, rosy-faced bobbies, a getting stuck into a curry once a week.’ Emboldened by favourable personal ratings relative to Kinnock, Major took to the high street, energised ‘ordinary people’ from aloft his soapbox and drew attention to Labour’s residual attachment to ‘tax and spend’, especially John Smith’s inclination to raise national insurance contributions. By the time the glitter had been swept up in Sheffield Arena, Major had his mandate (any idea of a decisive swing in the last few hours has since been discredited); gained not through bellowing the whiff of aspiration into working–class communities across the North or the Midlands (the Tories vote declined in these areas), but by shutting Labour out of Middle England. Through such strategy, the nouveau-riche working-class were inveigled, temporarily arrested by the promise of home ownership through cuts in Stamp Duty. For now, this was enough to see Major through.

Certainly, this was the hypothesis of a young ‘Anthony’ Blair. A month prior to election day, Blair claimed to have foreseen defeat. At the 1996 Labour Party Conference, he recalled canvassing on a suburban estate in Telford where he’d ‘met a man polishing his Ford Sierra, a self-employed electrician who had always voted Labour but switched to the Tories after buying a house and setting up his own business. His instincts were to get on in life and he thought our instincts were to stop him.’ The man who hardened Blair’s instincts into an electoral strategy was Phillip Gould, his ‘Strategic Communicator.’ For Gould, ‘the lands of the neither rich nor deprived’ had been surrendered all too easily by Labour. The party had ‘betrayed ordinary people with suburban dreams of getting better cars, washing machines and televisions.’ This labour aristocracy, had ‘outgrown crude collectivism and left it behind in the supermarket car park.’ Accordingly, Blair liberated Labour from outdated dogma. On tax, crime, nuclear deterrence and the European Union, Labour recalibrated their policy stance to sound with the silent majority. The stage was set for Labour’s assault on Middle England.

Labour’s Electoral Campaign 1997 – Labour’s play for Middle England

Labour and Middle England

1997 remains the watermark for an opposition Labour Party in Middle England. That night, one by one the gritty mid–sized industrial towns of the Midlands, notoriously mercurial in their historical voting patterns, fell beneath the Red Flag; Burton-on-Trent, Cannock, Halesowen, Nuneaton, Redditch and, to Blair’s personal vindication, the marginal constituency of Telford. As it happened, Labour extended their arm out into leafy commuter belts too (they hadn’t anticipated such success). Such a constituency, Edgbaston, fell under Labour control for the first time in a century. According to diary accounts, the ‘amazing’ capture of Edgbaston was specifically remarked upon by President Clinton in a phone call to Blair in the hours after the election result. Patrick Burns, the BBC’s Political Editor in the West Midlands recalled in 2010 that “every general election […] is remembered for one particular seat which sums up the story of the night. Edgbaston was that seat.’ Even in the shadow of the Iraq War, Edgbaston and areas of similar demography remained a stoutly red beneath the maladroit leaps of Jeremy Vine on the BBC’s election map. It did not matter if Labour never overtly targeted such seats. New Labour’s national message had successfully wrenched the mantle of aspiration away from the Conservative Party in Middle England.

Twenty years later, I wonder what those who entered the polling booth inculcated with the New Labour message, think as they enter the polling booth on 8th June. Despite the protestations of the Independent newspaper, it has been clear for some time that the Labour Party has now been in unremitting decline since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. For a while, the Independent remained insensible to wider public opinion; the paper ran articles (ignored arithmetic). Most could be classified under the paper’s increasingly habitual reliance on ‘clickbait.’ My favourite ran under the rather furtive title ‘I am the Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn’t exist,’ a titillating portrayal of an inveterate conservative who did not vote Labour under Blair, but now would because of Jeremy Corbyn’s regard for ‘Swiss–style’ direct democracy. I cannot say I was convinced. I am convinced however that the silent majority will have formed their opinions long ago on a Labour leadership who have previously courted terrorists, countenanced (and employed) 9/11 conspiracy theorists and practiced parlance beneath the banner of the Syrian Baa’th Party and the hammer and sickle. In the same way, I do not believe that Middle England was elated when John McDonnell unsheathed Mao’s Little Red Book from his bosom in the House of Commons. No Middle England living room responded to this with the phrase “finally, a Labour Party I can get on board with!” Most will have sat stupefied. Did he seriously just do that? For Osborne, it was enough to confirm that he did; ‘so the Shadow Chancellor literally stood at the despatch box… and read out from Mao’s Little Red Book.’ That was all that was needed. Nothing sardonic. No spin. Just a statement of fact.

McDonnell and his little red book

The problem is that even prior to Corbyn’s insurrection, Labour were already losing ground in Middle England. Take Castle Point in Essex, a constituency where many are self–employed, often in skilled manual work – often pejoratively termed ‘White Van Man’ country. Labour’s vote shrank from 42.8% to 13.8% between 1997 and 2010. In constituencies with similar demographics, Labour’s electoral evaporation is similar – Basildon, Crawley, Great Yarmouth and Gillingham – Labour has slumped. The much-trailed seat of South Thanet, now a Conservative/UKIP marginal, safely returned Labour members until 2005. The land of the White Van is unlikely to change this time. Both Emily Thornberry and Shami Chakrabarti have humiliated this key demographic; Thornberry with her snobbery towards the residence of a manual worker in Rochester and Chakrabarti with her butclenchingly awkward plea to Labour Party members to not leave her ‘locked in a room with Essex Man’. Presumably she forgot in that moment that she is also Chancellor of the University of Essex. Beyond insulting the unpolitical, Labour offers them nothing on Europe and Immigration – the issues that the public care about the most – and is demonstrably out of touch with defence and foreign policy. It is understandable that Labour’s analysts are looking over their shoulders (as of Friday, you can add Teesside to the list also). Yet until Labour offers a compelling narrative for Middle England and stretches out of its comfort zone, the party will be hopelessly hemmed in their shaking foundations for years to come.

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