Mawhinney plays the C2 card

They are the class who put Thatcher in power. Now the Tory chairman is courting them again. But are they still there?

Decca Aitkenhead
Saturday 17 August 1996 23:02

"While ABC1s can understand ideas and concepts, C2s and Ds often cannot. They can relate only to things they can see and feel. We have to talk to them in a way they can understand. Apart from the NHS, Tony Blair is the only thing Labour really has going for them. If Blair turns out to be as good as he looks, we have a problem. Maybe a few yobbos of our own should knock him about a bit. We need to scare voters about Labour."

THUS did a gloriously candid Conservative Party memo, leaked to the press in November 1994, map out a strategy for the Tories. The Opposition, naturally enough, was delighted by the leak. The Government was embarrassed. The press was thrilled. In due course, the fuss blew over.

But last week, when the Tories unveiled the latest volley in their New Labour, New Danger campaign - a curious Tony-Blair-as-devil-man affair - it began to look as if Conservative Central Office had taken that memo to heart.

And when party sources snapped back at the poster's critics, who ranged from bishops to their own backbenchers, that it wasn't meant to appeal to the "sneering so-called intellectuals of Islington", their campaign strategy began to become clear. As a spokesperson confirmed later in the week, the Tories are once again pinning election hopes on their old allies, the skilled manual workers known in the jargon beloved of advertisers and marketing folk as C2s.

We heard a lot about C2s in the Eighties. They were credited with the dubious distinction of installing Margaret Thatcher in Number 10, and keeping her there. Footsoldiers of the Thatcher revolution, C2s were up there with share offers, satellite dishes and suburban shell suits - features of the decade, political shorthand for all that Thatcherism meant. Politicians paid them considerable attention.

Until last week, however, C2s had been absent from the political map for quite a while. Now, the Conservatives are taking a keen interest in these voters again. Is this wise?

The tactic depends upon several assumptions. That C2s represent an electoral mass large enough to swing an election. That they like their politics served up as personality wars, rather than policy. That they are susceptible to negative campaigning - "gutter politics". That they are not terribly discerning.

This is a great deal of assumption - and, on examination, it looks mistaken. According to Bob Worcester of MORI, there is a good reason why we have not been hearing about them.

"They've shrunk. Massively, in fact. C2s made up 33 per cent of the electorate in 1979, but now they're just 23 per cent - only 2 per cent more than ABs, the professional classes. After Thatcher de-industrialised Britain, their jobs just weren't there any more." The service industry of C1s swelled, and the C2s' electoral impact has become indistinguishable from other groups.

Nor, says Professor Ivor Crewe, an expert in voting analysis, are C2s particularly volatile: "There are proportionally no more floating voters than in any other class. It's a myth." They may have swung back to Labour in the Nineties - "but then, so has everyone else".

Much to the frustration of social commentators, Nineties society has proved highly resistant to pigeon-holing. The Eighties, as Sunday supplement style sections would have it, were played out by a great cast of"types" - yuppies, guppies, sloanes, loadsamoneys. The Nineties are not.

"The C2 is actually the hardest of all to identify," said Professor Crewe. "Members of the professional and managerial classes have far more in common with each other than C2s - and C2s don't think of themselves as members of a group.

"The real fallacy is to assume you can target them at all. They do, for example, read the tabloids to a slightly greater extent than the population as a whole, yes. But they do not make up the majority of tabloid readers. So anything you say to them through the tabloids is going to reach more of the people you aren't aiming for than the people you are."

The working-class Tory vote has a strenuous tradition. Until the Second World War, it was considered deferential, the "forelock" vote, but when Thatcher recaptured it in 1979, her supporters recast it as the "I can be one, too" vote.

If the Tories are chasing that vote again for 1997, it is difficult to see on what terms they imagine it will be offered. Essex man sitting in his negative-equity home, reflecting on fat cats' salaries and his measly part-time pay, is unlikely to feel the Tories have made him "one too" - or to thank them with his vote. Brian Mawhinney clearly imagines he can get such voters back on board. The Tory chairman likes to think he gets along rather well with the C2s. A former president of the Conservative Trade Unionists, his part in the decision to retarget their vote is substantial.

He has been known to make confident assertions about "the sort of thing they are talking about in the pubs" of his constituency. He would be right in one respect. C2s do, by and large, respond better than others to campaigns couched in terms of personality and image, rather than policy. "The less well educated you are, the more likely you are to be taken in by the kind of thing the Tories are now trying," said Mr Worcester. The problem comes with negative campaigning.

"They hate it. I told Harold Wilson, right back in 1970, that the people complaining most about him slanging were the C2 and DE middle-aged voters in the Midlands. They were the ones who were really turned off by it," he said. What Prof Crewe calls "crude political yah-boo" is more easily accommodated by ABs, who understand politicking, than by less sophisticated voters who object to what looks like politicians behaving badly.

This appears to be borne out by a survey MORI carried out for the Times last month, testing response to the New Labour, New Danger campaign. While the campaign registered a greater impact among C2s than ABC1s, it backfired appallingly. C2 voters said it made them feel less inclined towards the Conservatives by 20 to one.

"Negative campaigning can work," notes Mr Worcester. "Look at 'Labour isn't working' in 1979. But it has to remind the electorate of the truth, and re-inforce their fears. Does anybody think Tony Blair is the devil incarnate? Absolutely not."

The leaked memo was right in one respect. The Tories do need to "scare voters about Labour". Fear motivates. But if they do find something useful with which to frighten people,they would be ill-advised to wave it at the C2s alone.

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