Political Promise

The squeezing of Middle England

In Uncategorized on September 30, 2010 at 7:00 am

How Ed Miliband’s progressive appeal can win back the coveted centre ground of British politics, by Charlie Mole.

So far Ed Miliband’s election to Labour leader has been greeted with a mixture of apathy, to downright disappointment from the party’s centrist ranks. Many blame his win on an anachronistic electoral system that gives the unions far too much power, seeing it as a return to the electorally poisonous Labour party of the 1980s, with one Labour backbencher describing it gloomily as “Labour’s Ian Duncan Smith moment.”

Where as David Miliband consciously styled himself as the heir to New Labour’s moderate centre ground, painting anything else as an electoral disaster in the making, Ed fought his campaign with a definite nod to the more syndicalist and socialist elements within the party. He sought to discredit himself from the New Labour project by attacking its wholehearted adoption of the free market, its record on social inequality, and more voraciously, the Iraq war, to which his brother didn’t take kindly, lambasting a clapping Harriet Harman.

Such rhetoric has meant that he has been portrayed as ‘Red Ed’ by many in the right-wing media, some kind of Bennite pantomime figure who will possibly re-enact Claus IV or make Arthur Scargill a Cabinet Minister.

However the idea that Ed Milband will drag Labour away from the centre ground, on which New Labour fought and won its 13 years in power, is somewhat of a caricature.

Instead, the party, under its new progressive minded leader has more chance than ever before to appeal directly to the ‘middling sorts’ who so categorically abandoned the party in May.

Where as the coalition has talked long and hard about sticking up for the poor, part of Cameron’s paternalisitic vision for his compassionate Conservatism, as well keeping the ranks of Liberal Democrat supporters happy, it has done little to appease those on middling incomes of £20,000 to £30,000 a year, due to bear the brunt of the coalition’s planned public sector cuts, VAT increases and inevitable income tax rises.

Last year’s official figures for Jobseeker’s Allowance shows that claims for some traditional middle income professions have already risen by more than 900%, with architects, surveyors and accountants among the hardest hit as well as huge numbers of university educated workers on the unemployment scrap heap.

In an article he wrote for the Sunday Telegraph last week, Ed Miliband had this to say about the problems faced by this new hard-hit demographic.

“As I crisscrossed the country during the four months of the leadership election, talking to mums and dads, small business owners and business leaders, students and pensioners, I heard a lot about why our party lost trust. People found themselves working harder than ever but it became no easier to get by. They wanted their children to have better opportunities than they enjoyed, but were stung by tuition fees and the lack of affordable housing for first-time buyers.

My aim is to show that our party is on the side of the squeezed middle in our country and everyone who has worked hard and wants to get on.”

Here he is articulating a powerful appeal to a post-recession Middle England that deserted the party at the last election.

Labour suffered heavy losses in traditionally middle class areas such as Kent as well as Dudley South and Swindon, precisely where the New Labour project was so successful. It is in these constituencies that Labour can again articulate a progressive vision of both maintaining public sector universality, and tackling social equality, placing itself as the only truly progressive party in UK politics, at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. 

A recent YouGov poll published in Mondays edition of the Sun emphasised the sheer extent to which Clegg and Co’s support has disappeared since the election, giving them a mere 12% of public support compared to Labour’s 39% and the Tories’ 32%. Their recent party conference told a similar story, with many murmurings of discontent amongst grassroots supporters and Nick Clegg’s grim-faced appeal to ‘stay with us’, meaning that such a poll will have compounded many of their fears.

All of which points to the fact that the progressive vote is wide open and there for the taking. More importantly, however, the coalition’s retrenchement program means that the squeezing of Middle England will only get worse over the next five years, giving more fertile ground for Ed Milliband to take his progressive message.

The younger brother’s status has risen meteorically over the last few months and he has proven himself as the progressive voice of the next generation of Labour politicians within the party. However the toughest challenge lies ahead: taking this momentum and articulating it to a Middle England that so comprehensively abandoned the party at the last election.

  1. […] the “Red Ed” critics by arguing the centre does not mean centre-right in the UK. Charlie Mole retorted later in the week that Ed is perfectly capable of “squeezing the middle […]

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