Leading Article: What Middle England wants: the Grumpy Party

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Middle England isn't a real place with grid references - Basildon in the east, Harrogate in the north, Bournemouth in the south, Worcester in the west. Middle England is more like something in the air, a background moan. That moan rose to one of its periodic crescendos this week in the district council elections. No amount of psephological tweaking could disguise the routing of the Tories; their supporters show no signs of returning to the fold before the main event.

Where there is affection for Tony Blair, it is love on the rebound. And highly conditional at that. Middle England has not converted to the milk-and-water precepts of New Labour. The mood music is a sort of tetchy, on-edge Philip Glass. Labour may take some pleasure from these results, but it would be unwise to take too much. The electoral justice of Middle England might ordain that the pendulum should swing. Party preferences might shift to Labour. But beneath all that, there is a different movement that should worry both parties: the next general election will be fought amid harsh disapproval of the political system as a whole.

It is still difficult to see where this disaffection might lead. Some optimistic analysts believe it could eventually lead to institutional reform. But the picture is mixed. First-past-the-post voting is more popular now than a decade ago, but more people want to reform the House of Lords and see the Scots achieve some form of independence or devolution. Yet Charter '88, the constitutional reform lobby group, would secure little name recognition in Tesco in Tewkesbury.

No, New Labour's mood might have been improved by the results, but the mood of the country is not positive. The country is disgruntled and grumpy. Seventeen years of Conservative government have sawn through many of the planks on which identity and security are built - and they include a reliable public water supply, and Aunt Sally British Rail as well as Essex County Council. This sense of anxiety has a material base. "Downsizing" is about more than job cuts. We are "downsizing" our expectations, coming to terms with long-run deflation, slower growth and stagnant living standards. It means ceasing to think of houses as appreciating assets which, for all the pressure of negative equity in parts of the country, most of us still do. Throughout the 19th century, rich and poor rented, for the very good reason that other more liquid assets offered a higher return. Downsizing means intensified competition for secure jobs, and that in turn means aspiring for one's children's future in dramatically different terms from the way our own parents pictured ours.

It is not that Basildon is suddenly worse off. Real incomes are still rising; unemployment is under 8 per cent. In Oxfordshire, it is just over half that, but the Tories still lost heavily on Thursday. People are spending; we reported the other day the dense penetration of British households by personal computers. Useful and fascinating they may be, they are not a necessity of life, even for families with games-playing 11-year-olds.

The Tories are right. If the "feel-good" factor was based on objective indices, they ought to see their flock turning away from Blairite temptation. But how little we know about the subterranean causes of changes in sentiment. It is partly a matter of expecting things to worsen. Middle England starts to fear for its old age; who will pay for care? Will pensions be enough to support the designated lifestyle? Will the children of dislocated families rally round? Who will pay for post-school education with all this talk of loans and students having to contribute toward tuition costs, and what kind of jobs will this education lead to? Once, the expansion of the "service class" - middle-income suppliers of services - seemed unstoppable. But now? Well, listen to Martin Mears, the controversial president of the Law Society. His noisy foot-stamping is the sound of the backwoodsmen of a profession fighting competition, simultaneously wanting to restore the respect and trust of the public and yet force the public to pay more for simple legal services.

As yet, this edgy, tetchy mood has not found full political voice. Euroscepticism picks up some of the mood but its exponents are still too shrill to really command the political agenda. The Tory pot does contain some of the ingredients that could go into a populism opposed to economic insecurity - xenophobia, cultural authoritarianism, Tebbitism. But it also contains economic liberalism which promotes markets and competition - the very bearers of insecurity for many. (The instability of the elements which make up that party looks daily ever greater.)

We gaze across the Atlantic and wonder about the scope here for a Perot businessman-as-saviour or Buchanan-protectionist-populist. Sir James Goldsmith rides across the Channel on his piebald charger. Mohamed al-Fayed looms over Knightsbridge. But what strange mixtures they are - one a Jewish cosmopolite, the other an Arab with attitude who has gone left rather than right to find political leverage against the establishment which fears and despises him in equal measure. Yet despite these new arrivals on the political scene, it is difficult to imagine a full-blown Perotism or Buchananism emerging in Britain's more sedate, controlled politics.

The ideological tenor of the times is hard to catch. There may be scope for a "left" response to discontent and dismay, a turn back toward collectivist solutions, taxes on the very wealthy, re-regulation to protect middle- class jobs. In an anxious California in the early Thirties, demagogues promised a chicken in every pot; perhaps Essex would warm to an earnings- related pension for every 65-year-old, paid for by a thick slice into corporate dividends or incomes over pounds 50,000 a year. Who could definitively rule out a political future for neo-egalitarianism?

As yet neither the right, with all its contradictions, nor the left, with its new-found caution about not raising expectations too high, fully addresses this mood of grumpiness head on. As a result, there is a sense that politics is not doing its job fully, when something profound and powerful about the nation's mood is not expressed. Yet perhaps we should be grateful that populism has not made further headway. Billericay is never going to be the breeding ground of political passion. But this carping and resentful mood is likely to survive the defeat of the Tories and the advent of Labour. We have probably found the Big Idea of the latter part of the decade - grumpiness.