Blair's voters in Versace

Essex man and woman are in the money, yet the feel-good factor is leading them to choose Labour

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Via, no kidding, a satellite link from Basildon, Tony Blair delivered a blatant lie to a Westminster press conference. "Basildon," he said, "is an interesting place." Admittedly he then went on to say, "in which to hold a local election campaign". But the damage was done. Basildon of itself is not an interesting place and has only taken on the ephemeral raiments of fascination by being one dull part of that legendary county which is the home of Essex Man.

And here was Blair's point. "Essex man and Essex woman," he insisted, "are coming over to today's Labour Party." The electoral resonance of this arises from the fact that it was the result at Basildon - a 1,480 majority for Tory David Amess - that signalled the defeat of Labour last time round. Apparently Essex Man, whatever his working-class roots, had seen the free market, Euro-sceptic light.

The point was that this man was not a natural Tory, he was not from old, rural Essex, but from new, suburban Essex. He sprang from working-class Labour roots. So the deeper significance claimed for that victory was that an irreversible cultural and demographic change had taken place. Former Labour supporters had been, if not quite gentrified, then at least drawn into the enterprise culture. They took the threat of high taxes personally and they regarded Labour's manifesto as an invitation back to the bad old days of unions and a fixed, underdog place in the world.

Such a convert became known to Tory canvassers during the 1987 election not as Essex Man but Earring Man. He would answer the door dressed in jeans and designer T-shirt, with severely cropped hair and a ring in one ear. This ring came to inspire neither fear nor an inward groan in the canvassers, but rather a sigh of relief. For they knew that it signified a self-made man, perhaps with a small business, who had done well under Maggie and expected to continue to do well under Major. He was the new True Blue, not the old Skinhead Red.

"There was usually a Rottweiler in the background," one canvasser told me, "and its owner often had a domineering mother, so he went for Maggie."

If Blair is right and Earring Man is about to vote Labour, then it will indeed be a personal triumph for him and for his new, non-socialist, enterprise- friendly party. In fact, it will turn out to be an even bigger triumph than he realises. For Blair will have overturned not just the psephology of Essex but also the old, apparently iron-clad law of British politics that rich people vote Tory and poor people vote Labour. This is because the current truth about Earring Men, at least those who live in Essex, is that they are, possibly unknown to the Treasury, stinking rich.

The exact extent of this wealth will not emerge in official figures for some time. Perhaps it will never emerge. This is, I suspect, because the casual, or black, economy in this country has boomed. One indicator is that VAT and tax receipts are lower than they should be. But the dead giveaway is that the official figures show only modest growth and still cautious consumers. The reality on the ground is that a boom is in progress.

My primary evidence comes from the vast Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock in, naturally, Essex. This is, for the moment, a sociologist's paradise. The liquid wealth on display is extraordinary. Versace jeans are the key. These cost around pounds 120 and are either being worn by or sold to Lakeside customers in bewildering numbers. They are de rigeur for Earring Man and his mate. And then there are sunglasses. One shop's range starts with Ray-Bans at pounds 80 plus and rises to Jean-Paul Gaultier's at pounds 250 plus. None of these things is presented as a luxury item, rather they are the only items in certain shops. If the middle classes are still too insecure to move house, then the lower middle classes are secure enough to become label victims.

And perhaps that is the point. Previous booms have been defined primarily as middle-class phenomena, based overwhelmingly on house prices. When the middle class feels rich it invests in property and then feels even richer as house prices rise to silly levels. But this is a liquid boom fuelled by a consumption rather than investment culture and, I would guess, by previous experience of insecurity. The working and lower middle classes have pulled out of the property dream. The house price crash detonated that myth and undermined the glamour of the council house sales programme of the Eighties. Now when Earring Man feels rich he goes for the Gaultier and Versace - conveniently or, perhaps, deliberately these are both designers whose products - spattered with gilt - go perfectly with the metallic macho of the earring.

This is not the sort of wealth the Tories find easy to deal with. Thatcher's property owning democracy was all about stabilising people in their homes, making them thrifty and solid - in fact, lots of little Grantham housewives and their husbands. But the new Earring wealth has mobile, globalised tastes and more insubstantial goals. Earring Man likes money, certainly, but not as much as he likes to spend it. Tory thrift has gone wrong for the property-obsessed middle class; they have discovered insecurity. But the lower classes have always known insecurity and they discovered it anew after the council house buying aberration of the Eighties. Now they've got it again, they're spending it.

So the question raised by Blair's remarks is: can Earring Man possibly vote Labour? To veterans of the 1987 election in particular it may seem inconceivable. During that campaign it became clear that voting Tory was a fundamental act of Earring self-identification, an assertion of aspiration, of material ambition. On the other hand Earring Man is hard, he does not like weakness and Major is definitely weak. Blair may not obviously be strong but, as one Tory put it, he "comes across as a gent" so he may still satisfy the aspirational Earring.

If he does, then the stakes are high. Essex is solidly Tory with the exception of, conveniently enough, Thurrock, home of the Lakeside mall. Converts here would be true converts, people who had made an imaginative leap from one identity to another. Blair would have convinced them that Labour no longer stank of pig-headed unions and dismal comprehensives, but rather gave off the fragrance of modernity, of Parfum Versace. Basildon will certainly go Labour, but then there might also be Harlow or, almost unthinkably, Braintree.

But Essex as a whole isn't really the point, the Lakeside mall is. That is the home of the high-spending belongers, those most integrated into the manners and aspirations of the modern world. They now look richer and more confident than ever before. They feel good. Yet, as we know, there is no feel-good factor for the Tories. The connection between wealth and political complacency has been severed. Earring Man is at a crossroads, wondering what Blair would look like in a nice pair of Versaces with perhaps a studded belt and some Gaultier shades.

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