Tim Wigmore states quite boldly that ‘Class remains the real dividing line in British politics.’ This is rather a depressing thing to read, not just because he is quite young and thus representative of the future, or because others say the same thing, but also because it encourages the view that ‘class,’ in the Marxist sense of the word, is a foundational problem in Britain – indeed, in the world. Karl Marx was a charlatan and a fraud, as were his acolytes, and Marxism in all its forms is a cancer that has done more damage to the world’s poor than any notion of class. Observe the reduction of poverty in India and China since their market reforms.
But Wigmore (Great name, by the way!) is in fact simply reporting what he sees, and he has a point, not to mention a bit of data to back up his claim. Citing a new ITV News/Comres poll, he tells us that 51% think the Conservative Party only represents the interests of the rich. If class is no longer about toffs and plebs and the use of glottal stops, but is now about money, then this figure indeed implies that enough of the electorate (or, at any rate, of the sample taken in this poll) think class is a defining issue.
The general thrust of the remaining data suggests that while the rich think the economy is going to improve and that they will benefit, the poor are more pessimistic, thinking they are unlikely to share in those proceeds of growth. This idea – that the Conservatives are for the rich and the rich are for themselves – is at the root of those ‘toxicity’ barbs. The Tory brand is toxic! they say. Not because of presentational difficulties, but because of what Tories are!
This is, indeed, ‘very dangerous territory for the Tories.’ It is, as Wigmore writes, why some Conservatives are floating the idea of substantially raising the minimum wage: to show the poor that they are on their side. And while there is also evidence that many people – particularly the less well-off – in Britain have lost faith in all three main political parties, it is not really a matter of class, even if we take class to mean wealth.
It seems to me that class is not really the dividing line in politics we might think it is. Indeed, it seems that there is no real dividing line at all, just increasing apathy and disillusionment; which tends to happen when people think there is nothing at stake and when they don’t believe what politicians are telling them.
Increasing the minimum wage – especially if it’s a substantial increase – might make certain politicians believe it will improve their image with those who are likely to benefit most directly. But it lacks integrity. Conservatives have always believed the minimum wage is counter productive: not because it won’t increase the wages of the low paid in the short-term, but because it tends to a) make other people unemployed, b) price others out of their ‘first job,’ from which they gain experience and the opportunity for better paid work, and c) create damaging distortions in the market which in the long run makes everyone poorer. Depending, of course, at what rate it is set.
While it is true to say that politics usually comes down to how people feel economically, the same problem of integrity plagues other issues. Polls have continually suggested that people are not happy with Britain’s relationship with the EU or with the extent of immigration, yet politicians of all stripes have delivered the exact opposite of public sentiment. Same goes for the Iraq war. None of these issues are class issues, yet they tend to make people ask themselves: ‘What’s the point?’
But we cannot ignore Tim Wigmore’s primary observation: that class (or wealth) is the real dividing line in politics. While people vote in the high street (or online, as seems increasingly the case) with their wallets, it is also true that people are motivated to vote according to how they think politicians will influence the size of their wallet. And if 51 percent of the electorate thinks a particular political party will not help them expand their wallet, then that party has a problem.
It begs the question: What should the Conservatives do about the perception that they are for the rich and not the poor? The PR man or woman might say they need to detoxify the brand, but the public are not convinced when the message is mixed. To change people’s perception of something, it is not good enough to change the surface; the substance needs changing too. But that would mean the Conservative Party becoming something entirely different, a social democratic party. We have one of them already; cynics say we have three.
The other option is to fight harder to convince the electorate that their policies will help them in the long run, even if it seems they will not. They could say with a little more conviction that the purpose of reduced government spending is not to make the poor poorer, but to enable economic growth which in turn will make the poor richer. They could say that the purpose of supply-side reform and reduced (more appropriate) business regulation is not to make the position of workers more precarious, but to make it more certain by creating an economic environment in which businesses are more competitive and prosperous. After all, a company can’t pay its employees if it doesn’t have any revenue.
The Labour Party is, at least, more consistent. The party’s leading lights seldom pass up an opportunity to entrench this idea of a class dividing line. Prime Minister’s Questions seldom pass without someone reinforcing the perception that the Conservatives are for the rich at the expense of the poor. Perhaps they are, in which case Tim Wigmore is right to say that it ‘should terrify the Tories.’ But if Conservatives genuinely believe that the poor are best served by free-market economics then they need to make the case at every opportunity. If not, they simply cede territory to the opposition; and that should terrify the Tories more than anything else.
Politics is therefore not so much about class as about ideas. And if the Conservatives want to defeat the idea that they cannot – indeed, have no desire to – help the working class, then they need to rebut it. If they can do that, then that 51 percent figure will reduce to the point where they can win an election. That is the dividing line: the line between politicians who are believed and trusted, and politicians who are not. Perhaps the reason we have a coalition today is that all parties are on the wrong side of that line?