Ken Blair, Tony Clarke. Any difference?

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'Imagine the private sector or public sector middle manager in Middle England who may be told that his organisation is being 'delayered' or 'downsized'. He will want to feel that there is a high quality health and education system on which his family can depend. He will also want to know that there is a modernised, affordable welfare system which will assist him with

the means to retrain and to find new employment'

'A functioning economy and labour market needs stability. That means the middle managers need to be able to count on the stability that somes from the opportunity to get another job if the previous one disappears, and the stability that comes from a secure home and family'

IT WAS the Chancellor of the Exchequer's best-billed speech for months but, at 6pm last Tuesday, it seemed doubtful that it would be delivered at all. Drowned out by student demonstrators, Kenneth Clarke stood centre stage at the London School of Economics, as Socialist Workers chanted that 'the workers, united, will never be defeated'.

When the hall was cleared, it proved not to be the workers who were on Mr Clarke's mind but the English middle classes.

It was, he argued, 'idle to think that Middle England does not sometimes feel worried', as he invoked the plight of the redundant middle manager who needs a 'modernised, affordable welfare system which will assist him with the means to

retrain and to find new employment'.

Meanwhile Tony Blair, in all likelihood Labour's next leader, was putting the finishing touches to a speech which was to prove, in several respects, almost identical. In Southampton on Wednesday, Mr Blair said that 'insecurity, once the preserve of the underprivileged few, is now the common experience of the many'. With words almost interchangeable with those of Mr Clarke he added: 'Middle managers need to be able to count on the stability that comes from the opportunity to get another job if the previous one disappears.'

Reading their speeches you could, said one Tory, 'imagine both men enjoying a bratwurst at a convention of European Christian Democrats in Hanover'. Political debate has long been obsessed with the C2s - the skilled manual workers who became the political icons of the 1980s by defecting from Labour to Margaret Thatcher. Now talk centres on the concerns of non-manual workers, junior managers (C1s) and the full paid-up middle classes, the professional Bs such as civil servants, lawyers, teachers and doctors.

The catalyst for this change is Mr Blair whose accession, expected this week, will put a ceiling on the growth of the Liberal Democrats in the south. In doing so it makes the shape of the next election clearer. David Willetts, MP for Havant and one of the Conservative Party's leading thinkers, argues: 'The new battleground will be predominantly a Labour/Conservative one in the seats which boast commercial towns around the south and in the Midlands, seats where Labour are second and seats that resonate more with the politics of the 1960s and 1970s than the 1990s.'

With many of the key marginals likely to be around London, the Home Counties, the South East and the south coast (as well as middle-class suburbs in the North) the two parties are squaring up for a battle for the English bourgeoisie.

For this Mr Blair is ideally equipped. The son of a middle- class English Tory voter, Mr Blair's instincts are to reach out to a wider section of the public than Labour's traditional franchise.

Labour, Mr Blair argues, will fail if it chimes only with narrow sectional interests such as the unions or is seen to represent just the poor and the dispossessed.

In crude electoral terms, he is aiming at the right target. Giles Radice, MP for Durham North and author of two pamphlets on Labour's poor performance in the south, said: 'At the last election we did badly with the C1s and C2s, the middle managers and skilled workers, who are concentrated most strongly in the southern seats.'

The middle classes are more amenable to Labour than ever before. Brian Gosschalk, managing director of MORI, believes that the C1s and the Bs are 'potentially fertile territory for Labour - Blair has spotted them as potential converts'.

Here there is a parallel with Bill Clinton's victory in the US, achieved by reaching out to Middle America when George Bush had alienated many interest groups. Mr Blair and the shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, are frequent visitors to Washington and have access as good as the Government to senior figures in the administration. Mr Clinton, they noted, sought not a rainbow alliance of minorities but a coalition of mainstream voters.

Nor are the Tories blind to potential parallels. They are thinking of recalling Richard Wirthlin, reputed to be the world's costliest pollster, once hired by Kenneth Baker for a reputed pounds 965,000.

In Britain the reasons for middle-class angst are largely economic. The recession has hit the south harder than the north, crippling many whose affluence was based on property values. The middle classes fear for their jobs. As one Conservative MP said: 'It is all very well for the Government to carry on saying the economy is going very well. Then you turn on the radio and hear that a high street bank is shedding 2,000 jobs.'

Mr Major's much-vaunted low-inflation, steady-growth economy may well delight the Bank of England, but to the average Middle England voter in work with a large mortgage, it is a curse. Never again will huge home loan debts be eroded in a matter of years.

As in America, the Government has upset the professional classes. Mr Clarke, a former Health, Education and Home Secretary, has played a leading role. His supporters argue that reforms have improved services, proved popular with the public and, in some cases (such as fund-holding for general practitioners), won over some professionals. But the majority of teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen and dentists have been alienated.

Nick Moon, director of political and social research at NOP, said: 'The Conservatives at the moment have alienated just about everyone. Traditional working-class people are voting Labour and, because of the breadth of the alienation, there are also middle-class people who are going to vote Labour.'

A Conservative MP put it more bluntly: 'In recent elections we were at 27 per cent. Polls show us to be more unpopular for longer than practically any other government in history. At the European elections, I estimate that the vote in my constituency was two-thirds down on a 50 per cent turnout.'

While Mr Blair has moved to target the middle classes, Mr Major has, for internal party reasons, moved to the right giving Mr Clarke the opportunity to occupy this abandoned territory. His pitch is to middle-class users of the welfare state, worried about erosion of services and privatisation threatened by the Thatcherite free-marketeers. As one of his supporters put it: 'The middle manager does use public services. He earns perhaps pounds 30,000 per annum, so it is idle to think that he buys in private health care or education.'

The scene is set for an intriguing battle. For Mr Blair the test will be his willingness to take on the left in areas such as the reform of the welfare state.

For the Tories the challenge is greater still. A slow and steady economic recovery looks less likely to rescue Mr Major while the thrust of many Government policies conflicts with the interests of the insecure middle classes. Within 24 hours of Mr Clarke's speech, the Government had announced the outcome of a rigorous examination of the civil service aimed at achieving big savings. It could herald up to 50,000 middle-class job losses. Top quotation Kenneth Clarke; below, Tony Blair.

(Photographs omitted)

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