They were named "Essex man" when their backing helped Margaret Thatcher enjoy a stranglehold on British politics for a decade. Then "Basildon man" gave up on the Conservatives to back New Labour under Tony Blair. But now Britain's army of low-earning workers are flocking to Nick Clegg in an unprecedented surge in support for the Liberal Democrats.
All the parties have been attempting to woo the 14 million voters in the group, who have jobs and are part of households with a total income of up to £27,000. But, whereas they had looked likely unenthusiastically to back the Conservatives, after the television leadership debates support for the Liberal Democrats surged.
Polling carried out by Ipsos MORI for the think-tank the Resolution Foundation found that the Liberal Democrats had secured an 11-point lead among voters in the group, with the party taking support from the Tories and "other" parties. The support for the Liberal Democrats is a major breakthrough as these voters do not traditionally vote for them. The poll found the Liberal Democrats had attracted 38 per cent of voters in the "low-earners" category, with both the Tories and Labour on 27 per cent.
This represents a spectacular collapse in support for David Cameron. Polling from the weeks before the leadership debates revealed their support for Mr Cameron had risen to 1992 levels, when the Tories won a narrow election victory. At the end of March, the Tories had 34 per cent of support, with Labour on 29 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 22 per cent.
It is the latest sign that voters have rejected Mr Cameron as the "change" candidate. Some Conservatives have admitted privately they have struggled to explain the party's "Big Society" concept on the doorstep. Focus-group work conducted earlier in the year by the Resolution Foundation suggested that, while low-earning voters were not enthusiastic in backing Mr Cameron, they did believe it was "time for a change".
Case Study: Melanie Dovell
The recession has not been easy on Melanie Dovell. Like millions of others like her across Britain, the 44-year-old has done her best to provide for her two teenage children and their shih tzu, Bailey, during tough times. Jobs have become a big concern for her at this election. While she works for 16 hours a week at a supermarket in Thanet, Kent, she has worried about having her own hours cut as a result of the downturn. Her 19-year-old son has struggled to find work. While she has not been impressed with what the Tories had been offering to help, she knew she wanted change from Labour.
“What we need is fresh eyes,” she said, disillusioned with Gordon Brown’s party having backed it under Tony Blair. Before the leaders’ debates, she was edging towards David Cameron and the Conservatives. Now, having not considered the Liberal Democrats before, she is taking them very seriously. “It sort of seemed that there was only a choice of two, but after watching some of the debates, I think Nick Clegg came across very well,” she said. “A lot of people are feeling the same. I was impressed with the way he handled himself against the other two.
“He was not one of the frontrunners, but did well. He’s offered something a bit fresh into the equation. Some of the Lib Dem policies do actually benefit me – like raising the income tax level to £10,000 and introducing a mansion tax. If I was some multi-millionaire, I might not be too pleased about it, but why not? If people haven’t got much, lower their taxes.”
It has meant she is now paying much closer attention to the last-minute campaigning. “I’m swaying between Lib Dem and Conservative. I’m going to see what happens between now and 6 May – I may even decide on the day.” However, she feels that all parties have been guilty of staying quiet on the one issue she describes as her “pet hate” – immigration. “It’s a scandal that people can come into this country when we have people here who are not being looked after properly.”