The Squeezed Middle: Politicans and Reality

Posted on October 12, 2011

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Last week saw the end of the Conservative Party Conference, the last of the three major party conferences. The usual practice at such events is that leaders seek to inspire party activists and to unveil strategies for electoral success. Such strategies can often be captured by a catchy phrase or term. One such is the ‘squeezed-middle’ used by the current Leader of the Labour party and his Shadow Cabinet. Previous such terms were: ‘Mondeo man’, ‘Worcester woman’ and ‘Essex man’, referring to the perceived median voter, the so-called ‘floating voter’.

The phrases have a two-fold purpose in most, but not quite all, cases. One is to provide strategists with a target, a defined demographic at which to aim. The other is to get politicians to exhibit awareness and concern for the median voter in using them. That they may not actually connect with, or inspire, the voter is something politicians and strategists often fail to see. A case in point can be taken from Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party Conference of 2009.

‘The values of the hard-pressed, hard-working majority – the squeezed middle – the person with a trade, the teaching assistant, the police officer, the millions of people whose efforts, no matter how extraordinary, do not always yield the highest rewards.’

It is fair to say that Brown’s defeat at the 2010 General Election was not due to this speech. Rather, use of such language attempts to show the electorate that the speaker ‘gets it’, even when everyone knows that he does not. Stephen Shakespeare, of the polling company YouGov, spoke as follows in a recent Newsnight interview:

‘The swing voters are spread right across the political spectrum. You can’t say, as so many strategists like to say, “Oh it’s over here or it’s in this place.” They create things like Worcester woman and Essex man and all these sorts of phrases that are highly methodological. All across the spectrum people are out of touch with politicians.’

The phrases do not seek to define policy positions, but rather to categorise the populus by interest groups. Politicians cease to engage with people and act as though responding to popular cries from the street. In fact, the ‘cry’ actually emanates from a conference room and is a composite of spectrum of opinions among those present. Politicians parrot what they deem to be popular.

The lack of direction and of vision among holders of office and others who aspire to dictate policy is worrying. The result is a country moving in a directionless manner. Such practices can be found in most democracies, and problems are not solved.

Mankind deserves better. Philosophers have sought an ideal for political life. Integrity is almost universally regarded as better than opportunism for electoral advantage. Once in government, however, politicians seem to focus on soundbites rather than vision. Perceived popularity should not be the only target in policy-making.

There has never been a golden age in which politics were free of cynical posturing and ‘strategese’. Evelyn Waugh noted that, ‘Politicians are not people who seek power in order to implement policies they think necessary. They are people who seek policies in order to attain power.’ It would seem that the advent of the ‘media-age’ has led to a drastic decline in the quality of public discourse.

Only a deep culture change can produce a shift from soundbites with an eye to demographics over to a political discourse rooted in ethical thinking. Such a change will not come via party-political machines. This view was expressed in this blog last year: ‘The UK needs a new kind of political leadership and discourse but the parties and their leaders offer little hope in this respect’.

The much-needed culture change can come only through the education and formation of future generations.

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(Photo of Labour Party Conference: © Adrian Scottow. No Endorsement Implied.)

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