Labour must not lose the voters of Middle Britain

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The Independent Online

Today, in Cardiff, Tony Blair will sit on a party platform with Rhodri Morgan, the man he worked so hard to prevent from leading Labour in Wales. It will be a poignant moment, made rather easier because Mr Blair, I am reliably told, now recognises that he was mistaken in devoting such energy to thwarting Mr Morgan's desire to be First Minister.

This touch of humility arises not only because Labour has won a notable council by-election victory since Mr Morgan's elevation - though that helps. It is also because Mr Blair now sees, whatever his honest preference at the time, that he paid too high a price for imposing it. In particular, his actions triggered a wave of internal hostility that made the task of seeing off Ken Livingstone, a vastly more divisive and oppositionist figure than Mr Morgan, immeasurably more difficult.

That is important. Prime ministers do not routinely admit they can be wrong. It should not, however, be mistaken for a sudden conversion to the analysis that all the party now needs is to nourish its so-called heartlands at the expense of Middle Britain. Indeed Mr Blair will spend some time seeking to demolish that idea on his trip to what by any standards is Labour heartland. For it seems that he sees such an ultimately false dichotomy as more threatening to his famous coalition of support than any idea in current political usage.

It comes at him from two opposite directions. The first is best summed up in the headline, at once arresting and violently self-contradictory, above The Daily Telegraph's front-page story on the Budget: "Middle Britain pays for Blair to win election". If Middle Britain is paying or, as Willam Hague put it at the weekend, is being punished as a result of Labour policy, then the Tories' problems are already well on the way to solution. The last thing Middle Britain will be paying for is a Labour victory. For without persuading enough of Middle Britain that a Labour victory is in its interests, as he did in 1997, Mr Blair cannot repeat his success.

In other words, there is not some mysterious left-wing electoral beast that merely needs to be awakened for a Labour victory to be delivered at the expense of the floating, middle-income voter. If there were, as Mr Hague and the sophisticated political minds at The Daily Telegraph well know, Labour would have done rather better in the three elections it lost in 1983, 1987 and 1992. Which is precisely why it is worth trying to persuade Middle Britain that it is being punished - especially if it is not. Hence Gordon Brown's memorable description of the of the distinction between the two supposedly mutally exclusive constituencies as a "Tory trap".

But the other direction from which the identical fallacy emanates is dissident Labour. Especially potent is the more mainstream Peter Kilfoyle's steady stream of criticism of Labour's perceived neglect of the heartlands, since he resigned as a minister.

That there is a problem is not in doubt. Local and Euro-election results indeed show that what Professor John Curtice calls "traditional working- class voters" have so far been more likely than others to defect if there is an alternative, non-Tory party available, as in Scotland and Wales, or more likely not to bother turning out if the seats are safe Labour. (Significantly, they show much fewer signs of doing so where there is a serious Tory challenge to Labour.) The argument is over the causes of the problem, and the methods of dealing with it.

One reason, no doubt, is that the - for such voters - threat of a Tory victory next time is unreal. Paradoxically, the hammering that Labour will certainly suffer in next month's local elections will make it seem just a little more real. But another reason, surely, is that such voters were especially disappointed by the tight curbs on public spending in Labour's first two years.

The Government then wilfully compounded that essential departure from all past Labour practice by hugely inflating expectations, in July 1998, about what it would then be spending. Not only did the money not start to flow at all until April 1999, but when it did, it was a good deal less than all the double-counting and annual compounding promoted by Mr Blair and Mr Brown had implied. Second, and here at least Mr Kilfoyle has a point, in their admirable drive to bring people back into the labour market, ministers had a tendency to use a language that at times went perilously close to blaming the poor for being poor.

But a year is a long time in politics. For a start, if ministers cannot use the pounds 2bn for the NHS - not to mention the new funding for education - to produce some real results before polling day, something is fundamentally wrong. Second, the Government has as potent a story to tell as any since Harold Macmillan's in the Fifties about living standards. Understandably, it has been almost reticent about that; to repeat Macmillan's ultimately hubristic claim that "You've never had it so good" serves only to expose the large numbers of people who feel quite the contrary.

Yet, group by group, those in work, and with children, seldom average out at less than 6-8 per cent better off than they were in May 1997. And while those as much as 20 per cent or so better off include some fattish cats in - say - financial services, they also include, thanks in part to working family tax credit and the minimum wage, single low-earners with families at half of average incomes.

That deeply unfashionable fact brings us back to the central Middle Britain vs Heartlands fallacy. Among those in work - currently a very large majority - views are remarkably similar, certainly up to the middle income level. NHS spending is a case in point. To regard it merely as a "core voter" issue misunderstands not only a national preference for free health care, but the crude fact that the alternative, private health insurance premiums hit pockets just as hard as a sizeable income-tax hike. Perhaps the most perceptible shift from 1997 is that Mr Blair seems markedly more relaxed, having proved that he is not running a reckless tax-and- spend party, about a policy for the next election of improvement in public services first and tax cuts second.

That does not mean that he does not still see the medium-to-long-term trend of income tax as down, nor that Gordon Brown will not pull a flanker on the Tories next April with another cut. But it does foreshadow some echoes next year of this year's Gore-Bush campaign, in which Labour, like the US Democrats, concentrates its attack on the Tories' "tax guarantee" as a means of demonstrating that they cannot carry out their promise to sustain public services.

That, too, is important. But it, too, should not be misread. For Mr Blair will not buy into the seductive idea that this is rejecting Middle Britain for the heartlands. No doubt he should - and can - do more than he did in 1997 to show that helping the poor benefits the whole country. But even that contains a simple and all too easily forgotten message for his party: that it cannot maintain office - and its consequent power to help the "heartlands" - without keeping the support of many who voted Tory during Labour's wilderness years.