Last time, I argued the Conservatives’ 2019 working-class voters are the Party’s most vulnerable, having peeled-off disproportionately in recent times amid the Party’s general slump. They should be the Party’s priority into 2024.
While I hope I’m wrong, I fear last Friday’s Budget will exacerbate the Party’s problem with poorer working-class voters. Here’s why.
Life in the time lag
The Government’s revolutionary Budget would be tough to pull off in a full term, let alone with just two years before the next election. This is the heart of the problem: timing.
Such is the scale of reform, people are expecting a lot; big benefits must be felt within eighteen months for the Conservatives to establish a compelling election narrative.
But while we’re all waiting for the economy to improve, the lives of many working-class people will be terrible. The cost of living crisis hasn’t gone away; the energy bail out has merely blunted the worst of it. Many working-class people are already struggling with historic price rises – energy bills, grocery bills, driving costs, and all the rest. Crucially, there’s also likely to be further problems in the NHS – growing waiting lists etc.
There’s going to be a long period where working-class voters are going to be hearing to Labour’s attack lines in bad times.
Growth v cost of living
The Government thinks there’s a growth problem; they might be right, but working-class voters feel there’s only a cost of living crisis – which they view as totally different.
Of course, there’s a great argument growth will create jobs and raise tax revenues, leading to more money for the NHS (or indeed more tax cuts). But this is a hard sell. The Government risks looking out of touch as it introduces measures ordinary people think are a distraction from real priorities.
In any case, most working-class people think economic growth never helps them. Look at it from their point of view: there are vast numbers of towns – from Mansfield to Redcar – which went into steep decline in the 1980s and 1990s, even as much of the rest of the country surged. They’re hardly going to be full of excitement about the prospect of new growth.
A Budget for bankers and bosses
This takes us to the attack lines themselves. Where do you start? I think the Government could have got away with the removal of the cap on bankers’ bonuses and a cut in Corporation Tax – justifying it, apologetically, by arguing we’ll directly see more businesses create more jobs in the UK. (Corporation Tax is a killer for SMEs).
But coupled with stamp duty cuts and the abolition of the top rate of tax – and with comparatively little action at the bottom of the pay scale – it all sets the narrative I suggest above: that it was for bankers and bosses at the expense of working-class people and the NHS. For the reasons I state above, this will likely stick.
The end of levelling-up
The levelling-up agenda as it was originally conceived looks to have died as the Government pivots towards growth and away from improving “liveability”. This again raises the question: by the next election, how will working-class lives have been improved? At most, there will be some more jobs to apply for – but likely similar ones to those already in their area.
Hopefully, growth will help the high street – which would be a massive help – but without a serious levelling-up agenda, it’s likely their towns will continue to decay.
The wrong side of fiscal responsibility
Extraordinarily, Labour can now position themselves as the fiscally responsible, “grown-up” party (they’re already pitching this). Labour have been struggling with their reputation for many years; working-class voters have increasingly felt they’re a crazy, “student-y” party, out of touch with ordinary people. With this Budget, they can shake their heads in bewilderment over the Government’s largesse.
Working-class voters don’t understand economics in detail; but they do instinctively get that Budgets should balance and you can’t spend money you haven’t got (which is why they supported austerity in 2010 amid Labour opposition).
Rising mortgage rates
For now, I doubt markets being spooked will affect public opinion. However, this will change if the Bank of England appears to act decisively to counter Government policy – if mortgages become more expensive apparently because of Government action. In this scenario, people will come to blame Government.
We’re certainly not there yet, but it’s easy to imagine we might be soon. Not every working-class family has a mortgage, but vast numbers do and in any case renters will likely get clobbered as their landlords suffer.
Raising immigration levels in a recession
While separate from the Budget, there’s also talk of significantly raising immigration to boost growth.
It’s hard to know where to start with this. Raising immigration in the middle of a recession seems perfectly, uniquely, designed to anger working-class Brexit voters.
Yes, it’s true they voted in 2016 for “control”, not cuts, but they won’t feel there’s any control at all if immigration goes up significantly as businesses close, job losses rise and the economy splutters on in the short-term. They won’t ever accept that immigration is a spur to growth.
What does this all mean?
I don’t think the opinion research on the Budget so far is anything other than a temporary snapshot. The working-class people we have spoken to simply don’t know what to think. They don’t hate the Budget; they hope it’ll work out; but they fear it won’t. Voters are in a state of suspended animation.
The danger for the Government lies in the weeks and months ahead. It lies in the period where Labour endlessly argues the Party has made decisions for bankers and bosses – that they’re doing fine while everyone else suffers badly. There will surely be a period where this looks to be true, even as growth starts to pick up.
Imagine the scene at Christmas the media will help play out: bankers spending their bonuses and newly-increased pay in posh bars and restaurants around the City, while working-class people queue for Christmas bargains in towns with reduced decorations; and all this while the NHS suffers yet another terrible winter.
Politically, this Budget was a big mistake.