Stuck in the middle

‘Squeezed middle’ voters could decide the next election. In this exclusive poll, Peter Kellner explores what they want to see from Labour

Ed Miliband has won the battle; his challenge now is to win the war. His attack on Britain’s energy companies struck a nerve: they are now hated even more than the banks. His call for a 20-month freeze in gas and electricity prices, pending measures to make the energy market more competitive, left the Conservatives floundering.

But with 18 months to go until the next general election, the contest over the economy and living standards is likely to ebb and flow. What are the underlying sentiments of the public that are likely to determine the outcome of that contest? Above all, what are the views of that crucial, if sometimes ill-defined, group, the ‘squeezed middle’? In a special poll for Progress, YouGov has been finding out.

The ‘squeezed middle’ can be defined in various ways. In this analysis, I apply the term to people who belong to the ABC1 social groups  (that is, where the head of household has a white-collar job); are under 60 (because separate issues around pensions and age-related benefits tend to dominate policy issues to do with the over-60s); and currently say either that they cannot afford luxuries or that they struggle to make ends meet.

Let us start with the basic numbers. Out of every 100 electors in Britain, 57 belong to the ABC1 social groups. Of these, 42 are under 60. Of these, 15 say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ comfortable financially. At the other extreme, one person says they cannot make ends meet on their current incomes and have to go without essentials. In between are 26 – that is, just over a quarter of the whole electorate – who are ABC1s, under 60 and say either that they can afford essentials but have nothing left over for luxuries (18 of the 26) or ‘can only just afford my costs and often struggle to make ends meet’ (eight of the 26). It is these 26 that are classified here as the ‘squeezed middle’.

It is clear that Labour has already made significant gains among ‘squeezed middle’ voters. Table 1 shows how their voting intentions compare with ABC1 voters under 60 who are comfortably off – and how both groups voted at the last election.

The big losers are the Liberal Democrats. Their vote among the ‘squeezed middle’ has collapsed by almost three-quarters, from 29 per cent to eight per cent. In contrast, Nick Clegg’s party has retained most of its support in the  ‘comfortable middle’. Most of the Liberal Democrat deserters have switched to Labour, but the United Kingdom Independence party has also made gains. This is consistent with other YouGov research, which has found that UKIP appeals to many people who are financially insecure.

Peter Kellner Progress November 2013 TABLE_1

What are the attitudes that have driven these shifts? We looked first at the basic attitudes of people towards taxation and public spending.

The results in Table 2 reveal a big difference between what is best for Britain and what people want for their family, and a smaller but still significant difference between the views of the ‘comfortable’ and ‘squeezed’ middle. Few people think lower taxes are the best thing for Britain, but this tends to be the preferred option, especially among ‘squeezed middle’ voters, for them and their family. Among these voters lower taxes narrowly beat higher public spending.

Peter Kellner Progress November 2013 TABLE_2

These figures present Labour with both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to tailor individual policies to the concerns of voters about their living standards. They need measures that put more money into people’s pockets and/or keep down prices. The challenge is to fend off the charges from the Conservatives that are bound to follow: that Labour is taking risks by using any spare cash to do these things rather than paying down the government debt. Labour must also resist the temptation to devote any spare money purely to public services. If all the extra money is used to increase spending and none to easing the strain on voters who do not feel comfortably off, then the party is likely to be punished at the election.

This is the broad picture; what about specifics? What would help most to ease the day-to-day financial strains of hard-pressed voters?

As Table 3 shows, the responses of the two groups are similar – both to each other and to the electorate as a whole. But it is noteworthy that ‘squeezed middle’ voters are slightly keener on freezing home energy prices and cutting council tax than the ‘comfortable middle’. Cuts in income tax and VAT are also popular, but the cost of making a significant dent in either would be huge, so targeting energy prices and council tax could be most effective. In the case of council tax, the Tories are already doing this – through forcing sharp spending cuts. This presents Labour with a problem. It hates the cuts, but must be careful about any attempt to slow them down or reverse them. It is unlikely to win votes with any policy, however justified in terms of services, that causes council tax to rise.

TABLE_3

Finally, what should Labour’s priorities be if it does want to devote any money to public services?

As Table 4 shows, this question produced bigger differences than the cash question. ‘Squeezed middle’ voters are significantly more likely than ‘comfortable middle’ voters to want extra spending directed at the NHS and support for the elderly – and they are much less likely to make infrastructure spending a priority. There is also a greater appetite among a significant minority of ‘squeezed middle’ voters – those with young children – to want more spending on nurseries and childcare. This is one of those instances where the small overall numbers, just 13 per cent of ‘squeezed middle’ voters, may well conceal a passion that could shift votes in a key target group.

The broader point is that the ‘squeezed middle’ want jam-today public spending – more money for services they and their families use – while ‘comfortable middle’ voters are keen on a greater element of jam-tomorrow spending, notably on infrastructure projects whose benefits are unlikely to be felt for some years.Peter Kellner Progress November 2013 TABLE_4

That is not to say a burst of infrastructure spending would be bad politics. It would be good for jobs in the short-to-medium term, and it may well produce important long-term social and economic benefits. The point, rather, is that more than 10 million Britons belong to the ‘squeezed middle’ as I have defined it here. Their votes will be crucial to all the parties at the next election and their political priorities are heavily influenced by their day-to-day struggle to keep afloat and build a better life for their families. They will not necessarily punish a party that, say, favours deficit reduction over tax cuts, or infrastructure spending over the protection of everyday public services. However, a party that chooses either route must make a convincing case that it truly understands the difficulties that millions of voters face – and that its package of policies offers them and their children a brighter future.
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Peter Kellner is president of  YouGov

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Photo: albertizeme

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