Ben Margulies

On July 8, George Osborne announced his second budget of 2015, one that seems to be heavily motivated by political ends. Some of these ends were fairly obvious. Raising the threshold on inheritance tax, and the cut-off point for the second-highest, 40 percent tax bracket are clearly designed to appeal to the Conservatives’ middle- and upper-class supporters. Spending on pensions is protected.

But alongside this is a “living wage” policy which is, at first glance, rather unusual for a right-wing government. Osborne, borrowing and in fact expanding a Labour pledge, has promised a minimum wage of £9 per hour by 2020 (for workers aged 25 or more). There are some new taxes aimed the wealthy, including higher taxes on dividends. In The Guardian, Larry Elliott notes that many business figures, and some free-market think-tanks, found the budget insufficiently business friendly, and especially objected to the minimum wage increase.

Increasingly, observers and pundits cite the Conservatives’ claim to be the “party of working people,” attempting to steal Labour’s raison d'être and making it impossible for the rudderless opposition party to form a viable electoral coalition. He wants to appropriate the private-sector working class for his own, splitting the Labour coalition. Also writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland observed that Osborne “wants the Conservatives to be the party of working people, leaving Labour as the party of worklessness and welfare. He’ll speak for the strivers, they can have the skivers – along with all those who either don’t vote or whose votes he’s happy to write off”.

Political science explains in great detail the dynamics that make Osborne’s maneuverings possible. Katz and Mair noted that the breakdown of the industrial-age class system had produced “catch-all parties” (though they didn’t originate that phrase). The leaders of catch-all parties sought to build electoral coalitions beyond their traditional class boundaries. The working classes were no longer as bounded by mass organisations like trade unions and a working-class civil society; these voters were up for grabs. They also noted that bourgeois parties, based upon the middle classes, had always sought support from outside their natural class base, because the middle classes usually formed a minority.

So is that who Osborne is aiming at? Working-class Labour voters? Certainly, he’s looking to capture some of these voters, and to fracture Labour’s support base. In 2015, 8 percent of Labour’s 2010 voter base switched to the Conservatives, nearly 700,000 votes. But I doubt that it is only, or even mainly, Labour voters that Osborne is seeking. For starters, those roughly 690,000 Labour voters that Cameron won over last May are only about 2.2 percent of the total number of people who voted in 2015. The Tories did well among “C1 voters,” but those are lower middle-class voters, not strictly speaking working class; many of them were more likely making a last-minute switch not from Labour, but from UKIP, which some research claims may be more of a lower middle class party than Ford and Goodwin suggested in their work on the party . And really, until now, the Conservatives have cared a lot more about UKIP voters than they ever did about working-class ones, even though their efforts haven’t availed them much (as I argue here). The confusion between working and lower middle class categories may partly explain why the Conservatives talk about “working people”;  they are taking many middle-class or self-employed people into that category who are not traditional Labour supporters.

Freedland’s argument provides another clue why Osborne may not be primarily aiming at Labour voters. “They [Labour] can have the skivers … along with all those who … don’t vote.” Osborne is unlikely to target or help the working classes for the same reason his budgets tend to strip away support for young voters – their turnout rate is lower. Catch-all politics aside, Osbornomics is as much about uniting the middle classes behind the Tories as it is about poaching Labour voters.

But doesn’t Osborne want middle-class Labour voters? Yes, but as Jon Trickett observed, Labour’s vote share in this group held up pretty well. So who is he after? Freedland again provides us a hint, but without specifying the target precisely:

No, the voters Osborne wanted to reach are those for whom the Conservative brand is still tainted, those who may be doing quite well themselves, but who still associate the Tories with selfishness and even a callous disregard for the poor. Osborne was making a long-term bid for those votes. He knows they already trust him to have a cool head. Now he wants them to believe he has a warm heart.

In other words, Osborne wants middle-class, but mildly progressive voters. And that suggest that his real target is probably his former coalition partners, the Lib Dems. As Nagel and Wlezien found, the Tories historically lost voters to the Lib Dems when they moved to the right (for more on Nagel and Wlezien, and how liberal parties fare when their rivals shift position, see my blog post here). Both parties are parties of the middle classes, with similar demographic and class profiles.

But perhaps the most compelling reason Osborne has decided to target the Lib Dems is that they are weak, and possibly terminally ill. The party’s left long ago defected to Labour, the SNP and the Greens; protest voters leached away to all sides. The party’s right wing would have seemed the most likely to stay loyal, but in fact one-fifth of their 2010 vote fled to the Tories. At more than 1.35 million votes, the Lib Dems proved a much richer source of support for the Conservatives than Labour did, or likely could. Fears of a hung parliament controlled by the SNP compelled many on the centre-right to loan their votes to Cameron and Osborne. The latter may be betting that the Lib Dems are so debilitated that he can capture many of these votes permanently, with a few gestures in a progressive direction.        

Osborne’s project for the state is clear, ambitious, and hardly original (neoliberalism is in vogue, as Yanis Varoufakis can tell you). But his project for his party may be just as audacious – to obtain hegemony among middle-class voters, and, faced with a fragmented, demobilized working class, to dominate British politics for years to come.

Ben Margulies is was recently awarded his doctorate at the University of Essex for a thesis on liberal political parties. He has recently published articles in the Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica and Comparative European Politics.

Image: MrGarethM CC BY