Saturday, November 24, 2012

Rhetoric and Reality in Corby

A week or so on, what does the Corby by-election show? There's been, and will continue to be, much analysis of the implications for Cameron and the Tories, what the win of such a 'bellwether' seat means for the Labour Party and, of course the impact of local factors on determining such a pleasing result.

This discussion is important, but there's an element of the reaction, from the press and from the Labour Party that leaves me a little cold: the idea of a win in 'Middle England'.

I must admit to much confusion, because I thought I knew what 'Middle England' was. I understood it as a socio-economic place (a principally outraged, Telegraph reading one); Middle-Englanders own their own homes as a matter of course, go to university as a matter of right, and regard the Daily Telegraph as a matter of fact. They have an innate conservatism that was born of bourgeois sensitivity rather than aristocratic privilege, misguided anger or simple tradition. They are, in short, Mrs Bucket.

Seemingly they are not. Mrs Bucket may well consider a move to Corby in 2012 but she'd be worried about the sensibilities of her neighbours. On Experian data published in The Guardian this May, Corby is the 35th most risky place to live in terms of falling into poverty - out of 322 authorities. That's worse than Bolton, Coventry and Darlington and one place better than Rotherham. If Rotherham is Middle England then Hyacinth Bucket is actually Rose.

Undeniably Corby is changing, however, bringing middle-class commuters, and the edges of the seat in rural East Northamptonshire have a traditional c(C)onservative core. So why make the point?

The reason Corby is a swing seat is because it is not Middle England. It's a seat with working people and a seat with middle-class people, a concoction of whom must have voted Labour. Its important to remember not just that some voters must have changed their mind since 2012, but that on a damp November day, many could frankly be bothered to turn out (20% turned up for the Northampton Police Commissioner; 48% for the by-election).

They have voted Labour because they're worried about social services, a slow economy and an incompetent government. They have voted Labour, no matter what their background, because the Party has begun to give answers to the serious problems that affect their day-to-day lives.

We run a serious risk, especially in seats like Corby, by talking about the importance of middle-Englanders that have been converted to the Labour cause. For the large community of ex-steel workers and their extended families (many fiercely proud of a Scottish heritage) being referred to in the same breath as Tunbridge Wells makes the party look ignorant and unappreciative. The working class Labour grassroots of Corby are not Middle England - but they need to be convinced and included in policy and rhetoric as much as their middle-class neighbours.

By talking about 'working people', 'taxpayers', or even 'the squeezed' we can make a much more inclusive point. These labels apply to all those who voted Labour in Corby, unlike the tag of 'Middle England'. More importantly, however, it also applies to many of those who did not vote Labour too.The nature of present government cuts is that they savagely affect all classes, like never before.

To win power again, Labour needs policies that are universal in their application and appeal - the rhetoric needs to fit that model too. It's not just about not patronising those at the grassroots of the Party, however, its also about convincing Middle England that it is the same philosophy that loses a local library, health centre and post office as it is that privatises our schools and prison system. Only when Middle England is a redundant identity, can we truly say that 'Middle England' is voting Labour.