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Can the election be won?

Wooing working class or Middle England voters is not enough argues Eric Shaw

Not so long ago Labour seemed to be in meltdown: massive Tory leads in the polls, a crumbling leader depicted as vacillating , out-of-touch and inept, an albatross hanging around Labour's neck.

Now all has changed. Gordon Brown has reaped plaudits from the Nobel-prize winning economist, Paul Krugman. Brown is widely admired for his speed of decision and steadiness of purpose in unveiling his financial rescue package and has garnered praise throughout the European Union. So does that mean that Labour now has a sporting chance to win the next election? Defeat no longer stares Labour in the face – but the road ahead is long and rocky. First, a few facts.

Despite what is widely believed in the Labour Party, the 2005 election was a poor result. Compared to 1997, millions of votes had been lost. In proportional terms, the party's score was around the same as 1992 and in terms of actual votes gathered, actually worse. It was the electoral system that delivered Labour - with 35% of the votes cast and only 22% of the total electorate - a solid victory.

The percentage of the electorate who can be considered Labour loyalists – strong party identifiers in the jargon – has been steadily falling (the same is true of the Tories too).

The disinclination of a substantial percentage of the population to vote – or even to bother registering – is disproportionately hitting Labour as turnout rates have fallen more rapidly amongst working class voters

For whatever reason Labour is not getting the credit it deserves for major improvements in the quality of public services

Above all, there is the economy. Joblessness is rising rapidly, living standards for most are stagnant. The housing market is in dire straights – and things are not going to get better.

For some critics on the left the party's electoral plight is due to its neglect of core (normally understood to be working class) voters. For New Labourites the next election will be decided by whichever party is best able to woo Middle England. I shall argue that neither of these two concepts, ‘core' (or ‘heartland') voters or Middle England, is particularly helpful.

Two trends are worth noting here. Firstly the steady contraction in the proportion of the electorate who could be regarded as working class – the figure probably stands at less than 40%. at present. This means that Labour has to appeal to voters who can loosely be termed middle class. Secondly, the weakening of class-party alignments. Sentiments of class identity, class solidarity and party allegiance have (for a variety of reasons) steadily abated. The percentage of working class voters who can be relied upon to troop behind Labour's colours because it is seen as ‘their party' is now much lower than it once was. Voters are now much more fickle. The outcome is what has become known as class dealignment, that is to say the diminishing propensity of working (but also middle) class voters to affirm a loyalty to - and therefore habitually to vote for - their ‘natural' party. To this extent Mandelson was right when he commented recently that a ‘heartlands' strategy was bound to fail (New Statesman, 1 Oct 2008)

The problems with ‘Middle England' are of a different nature. A social category only has value to the extent, firstly, that it can be defined in terms of some significant shared properties and, secondly, that those who are classified as belonging to it are aware that they are members. In short it has to be both objectively and subjectively meaningful. ‘Middle England' fails on both counts.

Firstly, its boundaries are never clearly set: are its members defined by the fact that they are middle class, middle income or have middle-of-the road political views? Nobody knows. Secondly, even is we could establish what being Middle England objectively signifies does it exist (in the minds of its purported members) as a mental category or social group to which they feel allegiance? There is no evidence that it does. As David Aaronovitch pointed out a while ago, ‘there is no entity, no one group, no homogeneous culture that can be usefully and separately defined as being Middle English'. (Independent, 14 June 2008)

Ah, its strategists reply, the point about New Labour is that it is not a party for this or that section of the community, but a party for all. ‘We have to look at the whole country as our constituency, Peter Mandelson explains, with ‘everyone a potential Labour voter'. Now of course all voters share similar goals and aspirations, for improved living standards, better healthcare, decent pensions and so forth. However politics is about making choices and ordering priorities and not all people share the same priorities. As Chan and Goldthorpe explain:

‘Individuals holding different class positions…in terms of employment relations, can quite rationally see themselves as having different interests (e.g. on economic inequality and the redistribution of income and wealth, levels of public spending on social welfare, and relations between employers and employees.)'

If one is for everyone, one is for no one. Indeed, this has been part of the problem. As Roy Hattersley wrote ‘Nobody now knows what the government stands for - whose side it is on. By attempting to be all things to all voters, it seems to have lost both its moral compass and its nerve'. (New Statesman,15th May 2008)

But does this not return Labour to the predicament of relying on a dwindling number of working class voters? Not at all. If the working class has lost much of its homogeneity so too - but even more so - has the large and constantly expanding middle class. This has been widely recognised amongst electoral experts, who now commonly distinguish between ‘routine non-manual workers' and the ‘salariat', or professional and managerial employees. This is, indeed, a very significant horizontal cleavage since the income, power and life chances of, for example, clerical workers and senior managers differ so drastically. On many issues - e.g. health, education, pensions, care for the elderly - routine non-manual workers have far more in common with manual workers than with the monied upper-middle class. In bald terms the former have a much stronger interest in a large, universalistic and redistributory welfare state than the latter.

Equally significant - but often overlooked - is the vertical divide between the public and private sector middle class. I would suggest that this divide has profound political and electoral consequences. Research into West European countries discloses major disparities in the electoral behaviour of the public sector middle class (especially those employed in health, education and welfare) and the private, with the former far more likely to vote for parties of the left (including Greens) and the latterfor the right. (O.Knutsen, European Journal of Political Research, 2005) Nor is this surprising. Public employees have an interest in higher public spending, market curtailment and the expansion of welfare: such policies spell more jobs, more career opportunities and higher rewards. Equally, the ethos and professional norms of health, welfare and educational occupations incline public sector employees to take a more favourable view of active public policy. Research has shown that both education and work experience socialise public sector employees into favouring collectivist rather than market-based solutions to social problems. (H. Kitschelt, 2004).

In summary, manual workers, routine white collar workers and the public sector middle class can all be regarded as potential recruits to the Labour cause – if the key divide between the two main parties is over expansion or retrenchment of the welfare state. Of course, public programmes carry a price tag – higher public spending entails more progressive taxation. This leads to the final point.

There is, then, a large constituency to whom Labour can appeal. But how? This brings us back to the economic crisis. Naturally the Tories are seeking to pin the blame for the financial turmoil on the Prime Minister – and by no means entirely wrongly. Brown, as Chancellor, was an enthusiastic advocate of ‘light-touch' regulation of the financial markets and time and again eulogised the ‘efforts, ingenuity and creativity' of the City.

Brown has a double task. Firstly, to design and implement a programme which protects ordinary citizens as much as possible from the inevitable economic buffeting. Secondly, if unpleasant medicine has to be administered he has to explain why it has been necessary – in short, develop a convincing diagnosis for the global malaise.

This, inevitably, will involve some painful swallowing of his own words, acknowledging that his enthusiasm for financial liberalisation and his adulation of the City have been major mistakes.

But better a sinner that repenteth. If the voters are not persuaded that deregulated financial markets, bonus-driven reckless gambling, City greed – the whole gamut of the Washington consensus – are not to blame, they'll find a target nearer to (Downing Street) home.

New Labour has for long proclaimed that responsibilities must be coupled with rights. It is now time (belatedly) to apply that maxim to the rich, whose share of the national income has risen rapidly under New Labour Somebody will have to pay for the crisis, so why not those with the broadest shoulders. Here are two suggestions for Mr Brown:

Impose a 50% income tax band on those earning more that £100,00

Do what he promised to do over a decade ago: tackle the tax havens and the numerous other massive tax avoidance schemes which have allowed the super-rich to dodge their tax responsibilities for so long. Why not a new populism of the left?