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Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson: It's looking grim - unless, like Cameron, your talent is PR

They work in factories or construction or in shops and you'd have thought they'd be getting angry

They tittered. They nodded. They smiled. They listened to this son of a stockbroker, who went to Eton, and married an aristocrat, and spent £25,000 on doing up a kitchen, and when he finished talking, they clapped. When David Cameron finished talking, about the 5,000 jobs that their employer was creating, and about how it wasn't fair that people who weren't working should get more than £26,000 in benefits, the Asda employees clapped. The Asda employees, who earn £6.50 an hour for scanning barcodes, or stacking shelves, clapped the multi-millionaire.

They liked him. But then lots of people like him. So many people like him that the Tories are now more popular than they've been for nearly two years. They are, according to a new poll, five points ahead of Labour. They would, if an election was held now, win it outright.

You might think this was a bit strange. You might wonder if the people who say they like David Cameron have noticed that he said he would do all kinds of things he hasn't. You might wonder, for example, if they noticed that he said he would sell off forests, and then changed his mind, and said he'd stop weekly bin collections, and then changed his mind, and said he'd have the greenest government ever, which he hasn't. You might wonder if these people had noticed that he said he wouldn't do anything to harm the NHS, and then announced changes to it which most people who work in it seem to think will. Or if they'd noticed that the financial forecasting body his chancellor had created had almost halved his predictions for growth.

You might wonder if these were the same people as the ones talked about in a report that came out yesterday, which said that households with an average income of £25,600 are going to carry on seeing it fall. By 2020, according to the report, their disposable income will be about £1,700 lower than it was before the recession. They are, in other words, getting poorer all the time.

These people – about 10 million, apparently, which is a big chunk of the population – have watched energy prices go up, and transport prices go up, and food prices go up, and council tax go up, and inflation go up, but their pay has remained the same. They work, according to the report, in things like manufacturing or construction, and in healthcare, and in shops. And you'd have thought they'd be getting angry.

You'd have thought that they might want to attack whoever was in charge. You'd have thought they'd think that they'd messed up. You'd imagine they'd be saying that they'd never vote for them again. But if the latest polls are right, they're not.

People, or at least 46 per cent of people, which is the highest number since this Government came into power, think that David Cameron and George Osborne are the people "best placed to manage the economy". Only 28 per cent of people think Labour would do better. And it isn't just the professional middle classes, who think Labour's wrong, and the Tories are right. It's also the "C1s" and "C2s", which is what sociologists like to call the lower middle and skilled working class. And which everyone else, including the report which was all about it, now calls the "squeezed middle".


If you were the Labour leader, and had been the first person to talk about the "squeezed middle", which you first did in an interview more than a year ago, you might be feeling rather cross. You might think that you'd been the person who had coined the phrase, or at least nicked it from the thinktank who also wrote this report, and the first person to identify it as what politicians (and particularly politicians who have never been anywhere near a war) like to call a "battle ground".

You might feel your cheeks go red when you remembered that particular interview, and how you came up with six different definitions of what the "squeezed middle" was, but you might think you'd come a long way since then. You might think, for example, of how you'd been really tough with the unions last week, and how you didn't mind that they'd been pissed off with you, because you knew that the "squeezed middle" was pissed off with them. And you might want to remind those colleagues who seemed to think that getting rid of you would solve all the Labour party's problems, that voters didn't seem to think any of your rivals in the party would do better. That they seemed to think, according to another new poll, that all of them, except, unfortunately, the brother you ousted, would do worse.

But what you might not realise was that the reason your party wasn't doing well in the polls, and the party in government was, even though it had made lots of U-turns, and seemed to be making quite a mess of the economy, wasn't because you didn't have a "vision", which is a word that politicians like to use at party political conferences, or because you didn't have a "narrative", which is a word that special advisers think means something to other people, but because you were very, very, very bad at tone. And because the party that was in power, and particularly the leader of the party that was in power, was very, very, very good at it. Was, in fact, much better at tone than anything else.

The leader of the party in power knows that life for the "squeezed middle" is looking pretty grim, but he also knows he can't do much about it. He can't, when everyone's economy is in a mess, wave a magic wand to make sure ours isn't. He can't suddenly revive a manufacturing sector that's in terminal decline. He can't, unless he changes his mind on the deficit, which seems to be the only thing he doesn't think he can change his mind about, create lots of jobs. What he can do, as he did in Asda on Monday, is tell the "squeezed middle" that people who don't work will no longer be better off than them. He can't spend more money, so he can only cheer people up by giving other people less.

When Labour came to power, after 18 years out of it, people believed them when they said things could only get better. Now, most people know they're quite likely to get worse. They don't want promises because they don't believe them. They prefer the even keel of quiet resignation to the roller coaster of false hope. What they seem to want, instead of people who might do some serious strategic thinking or long-term planning, which neither of the main parties seems to be offering, is a simple message, plainly delivered. What they seem to want, in other words, is someone who's good at PR. Which, rather depressingly, and perhaps for a while, they've got.