Mondeo man and Worcester woman dominated political talk in the 1990s. Who are today’s equivalents, asks Caroline Flint
It might seem like a contradiction, but to elect a ‘One Nation’ Labour government in 2015 will require careful targeting. Like any political party, we only have so much time and money we can spend on our search for power. So our resources must be targeted at finding the people who will really decide the next election.
The last time we were in opposition, we identified two crucial types of voters we needed to win over in order to get elected. They were known as ‘Worcester woman’ and ‘Mondeo man’. Worcester woman was the archetypal middle-class, middle England voter, synonymous with suburban prosperity. Many of them were stay-at-home mums, or women who combined part-time work with raising a family. Throughout the 1980s they worried about what a Labour government would mean for their mortgage rates and take-home pay. So they stuck with the Conservative party, helping it to win crucial seats in the Midlands like Redditch, Rugby, Warwick and Leamington and, unsurprisingly, Worcester. Closely modelled on the ‘soccer mom’ – those middle-class mums that Bill Clinton successfully mobilised to secure a second term in 1996 – Worcester woman was seen as fiercely aspirational for her children, spending a large chunk of her time ferrying them from one after-school activity to another, concerned about education and opportunity, and thought to vote on quality of life issues.
Mondeo man, by contrast, was a bit rougher round the edges. The term was coined after Tony Blair’s conference speech 1996 when he recalled an encounter with a former Labour voter he canvassed in Sedgefield. The man was proudly polishing his new Ford Sierra car. His father was a Labour voter. In the past he had voted for us too. But then he had bought his council house. He had set up his own business. And he had bought a Ford Sierra. He felt like he had done all right for himself. And he did not see what Labour had to offer to people like him. So he became a Tory.
Admittedly, by 1993, the Sierra had been replaced by the Mondeo in the Ford product range, and Mondeo man was probably more likely to be found in Essex, Kent, and the new towns, than in County Durham. But Mondeo man was a crucial part of the coalition that delivered three victories for Margaret Thatcher and, in seats like Basildon, stopped Neil Kinnock from winning in 1992. Builders, electricians, plumbers: these were people who worked hard, wanted to earn a good living, voted for whoever they thought would help them get on, but worried that our instincts were to hold them back.
Together that coalition helped deliver three election victories for Labour, winning scores of seats for the party in our market towns, seaside resorts and suburbs. What united all of them was aspiration.
But things have changed since 1997. Twenty years on from Blair’s encounter in Sedgefield, we should ask ourselves: what has happened to Worcester woman and Mondeo man? Who are Labour’s target voters now? And how do we win their support?
The comfortable prosperity and easy optimism of the 1990s and early 2000s has given way to a darker mood. More people are middle class, but being middle class feels less secure than it did. So things are tougher than they were for Worcester woman. Her husband probably has not had a pay rise for years or has seen his hours cut. She has gone back to work or increased her hours to keep pace with the rising cost of living, and has to keep a more careful eye on the family budget. The house has not been redecorated in a little while and the services of the gardener have been dispensed with. Trips to the cinema have probably become a little less frequent. And even though she still buys most things at the supermarket, she probably tops this up with a trip to the local Aldi, which opened on the retail park in 2007. Worcester woman has become ‘Aldi mum’.
Discount supermarkets are no longer exclusive to the poorer parts of the country. Forty per cent of the public now visit discount supermarket chains at least once a month, and Lidl and Aldi have increased their combined market share by nearly half since 2008, with new shops opening in pretty market towns and cathedral cities. Price-conscious, financially insecure, struggling with rising food costs and soaring energy bills, Aldi mum is an unashamed bargain hunter who stocks up on the basics at the supermarket but opts for Aldi for the Parma ham and prosecco wine.
As for Mondeo man, for one thing, he probably does not even own a Mondeo any more. Once the car of choice for Britain’s aspirational families, with three-quarters of a million vehicles sold in the 1990s, last year the Mondeo did not even feature in the top 10 best selling cars in Britain, with barely 50,000 sold this decade. But he does still live in the south. If you look at Progress’ Frontline 40 – the seats that will make the difference between us just becoming the largest party and securing an outright majority at the next election – more seats are in the south than any other part of the country. There are 15 seats we need to win in the south, compared to just nine across the whole of the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire combined, and eight in the Midlands. It will be down to people in places like Crawley, Dover, Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Milton Keynes, and Norwich to decide whether Labour wins an outright majority at the next election. Aldi mum’s counterpart is now ‘Crawley man’.
Both are struggling to make money last the month. They are worried. They have got very little savings, so even the slightest misfortune – a broken boiler or faulty fridge – could create real hardship. They are tired. They feel like there are not enough hours in the day and, even when they do manage to get a bit of time to themselves, more often than not they are flat out on the sofa. Worst of all, they do not even feel like it is worthwhile or that they get to see the rewards. They go to work every day and put in the hours, but the things that made it worthwhile in the past – the takeaway on a Friday night, the occasional meal out in town, or the two weeks somewhere in the sun – now seem out of reach.
So the challenge for Labour between now and 2015 is different to the one in 1997. Fifteen years ago, the concern we had to address was that people wanted to get on in life, but thought our instincts were to stop them. Today, people are struggling, but think no political party understands what life is like for them, let alone knows how to improve things.
That is why so much of what we do between now and then will be focused on issues that Aldi mum and Crawley man are actually talking about. Action where people are paying more than they need to – breaking the stranglehold of the ‘big six’ energy suppliers, stopping the train company price rip-offs on the most popular routes, capping interest on payday loans, and putting an end to letting agents ripping renters off. Action to get people into work and tackle underemployment through a compulsory jobs guarantee and better targeted training. Action to ensure that we build an economy where hard work pays, responsibility is rewarded and everyone does their fair share and plays by the same rules.
In the run-up to every election much attention always goes on trying to find the archetypal median voter. Some, like Worcester woman and Mondeo man, perfectly capture the spirit of the times. Others, like William Hague’s ‘pebbledash people’ and Nicola Murray’s campaign to win over ‘everyday superstars’, ‘all-British supremes’ and ‘quiet bat people’ in The Thick Of It, are less successful. But they remind us that parties win elections when they pay attention to voters and their priorities.
In the United States, Peoria, Illinois, has acquired a legendary status as a popular test market to gauge opinion on new products, services and campaigns. Before any presidential candidate commits to a new policy or campaign slogan they ask themselves a simple question – will it play in Peoria? If it is thought a policy would, it can be sold successfully to the rest of the nation. Between now and 2015, we must ask ourselves the same question: how will it play with Aldi mum and Crawley man?
Caroline Flint MP is the shadow energy and climate change secretary and Labour’s regional champion for the south-east
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