David Cameron is the first Tory leader in living memory that could be described as trendy. He is reaching fashionable urban intellectuals, a key part of the Blairite coalition, and Labour are rattled.
But he is ignoring another crucial part of the New Labour coalition - low-paid white collar workers and skilled workers, or C1/C2 voters. It was these voters, especially southern ones, who helped make Labour electable again by switching from the Tories in the 90s.
By wooing the urban elites, Cameron is leaving a vacuum on the rhetorical and policy stages. Labour has the opportunity to construct a rhetoric that unites the urban elites and C1/C2 voters and justifies policies true to the party's heritage. But to understand what that rhetoric is and what those policies are, Cameron's strategy has to be explained.
How the Tories lost Professionals
The Conservative leader has refused to be painted into the corner of red-in-tooth-and-claw Thatcherism. Instead Cameron has adopted the language of social responsibility and radical causes. He has shaken Labour, refusing to erect the straw men that the Blairite campaigning machine find so easy to knock down.
Some polls suggest that his tactic is working, others that it is not. But polls at this point, three years ahead of a general election, are meaningless. At this stage of the game, logic and recent history should guide us as much as any present data. And unfortunately for Labour supporters, Cameron's trajectory may be heading straight for the bullseye of a winning strategy. The Conservative leader appears to be moving to the left and he may well be. But the strategy is certainly aimed, at least in part, at higher income voters.
What he seems to have realised is that the great hold of "respectability" over the professional middle class or AB voters is draining away. Up until the 1970s around three-quarters of the middle-class voted Tory and many did so out of a sense of respectability.
They went to church once a week, or at least at Christmas and Easter, followed Cricket and Rugby Union rather than Football and Rugby League, and watched the BBC rather than ITV. For these people, voting Conservative was just another facet of a respectable life.
At some point however, a new type of middle-class professional emerged, who did not see respectability as the be all and end all of life. The generation who identified their coming of age with the 60s counter-culture revolution junked respectability, trading it in for self-fulfilment. Disapproval of alternative lifestyles lost its currency.
The drive for self-fulfilment dovetailed well with the liberation politics emerging at the time. Anti-racism, gay rights, feminist and peace movements all had their serious ideological underpinnings. But there is no doubt that many sympathisers, if not activists, were attracted by a general sense of rebellion and tolerance of different lifestyles. By defending a general loosening up of societal norms, this new middle class defended its own right to make different lifestyle choices.
The "children of the 60s", and those born later but who followed their lead, could be described as post-materialist. A kind assessment would say their political preferences did not reflect defending the position of 'people like us', but altruistic concerns. They retained the anti-establishment instinct of the time and were interested in 'alternative' or 'unconventional' viewpoints.
A more undiplomatic survey would label them as consumerist. It could be argued that their political beliefs were consumed as any other fashion accessory, plucked off the shelf with no overarching ideology glueing them together.
These people, and those who approached life and politics in a similar way, helped Labour to the 1997 landslide and have been a crucial part of the New Labour coalition ever since.
By 1997, the Tories had become a discredited brand. They were the great disapprovers of single mothers, homosexuals, the unemployed and the bohemian. Prime Minister John Major's Back to Basics campaign, yearning for Victorian values, and Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley's 'Little List' speech, detailing the social miscreants he was going to 'root out', seemed to exemplify a party full of hate.
This line had served the Tories well in the 80s, when an anti-60s backlash was in full flow. But it was not ideal once a segment of society that worshipped youth and had dabbled in free love came into its prime. Rather than a bitter angry party, who fought over how much it hated Europe, this generation felt so much more at home with a well-spoken polite young man with a wide inviting smile. Enter Anthony Charles Lynton Blair and Cool Britannia. New Labour. New Britain. New voters. The Tories have never recovered. Although in 2005 they were the leading party among ABs, support had halved from the 1960s to only 37 per cent.
Where are they now?
By 2005 these people were drifting away from Labour as well, having been turned off a tarnished Government. The Liberal Democrats won 1.4 million more votes than in 2001 and a 4.8 per cent swing from Labour, riding on the back of anti-war feeling. It was also noticeable that many Lib Dem gains from Labour were in constituencies with a heavy concentration of what the Experian classification system terms 'urban intelligence'.
Described as 'Mosaic Group E', they tend to be young, single, well-educated and cosmopolitan. These voters made up 48 per cent of the voters in Manchester Withington, 43 per cent of Cambridge and 47 per cent of Cardiff Central - all seats lost by Labour to the Lib Dems. And now David Cameron is after them. Just as it was once part of middle class identity to be 'respectable', holding the right views seems just to be as important today.
These voters may wear poverty history wristbands, send £10 a year to Africa and drive hybrid cars. They may also laugh at working class stereotypes on TV comedy shows, dismissing those beneath them as xenophobic ignorant chavs. There is no law against having seemingly contradictory social and political attitudes.
How Cameron's strategy works
Cameron's strategy involves three main steps, as we can see in a speech he gave to a Conservative Party rally in February 2006 in London. First, he positions himself as the politician who cares:
"We stand for modern compassionate Conservatism. We're fighting to improve the quality of life for everyone in our country... To build a strong society we show that the right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich. We will improve public services for everyone, not help a few to opt out."
The Conservative leader then contrasts his vision with Gordon Brown and the out-dated grey dour lumbering state, tapping into that knee-jerk distain for anything too old-fashioned or 'establishment':
"They don't trust people - they tell them what to do, they boss them around, they ban things and pass new laws instead of giving people power and responsibility.
"They don't share responsibility - they think that government has all the answers and so they give us a constant stream of quangos and laws and regulations."
Finally Cameron presents an 'alternative' or 'unconventional' vision of how to solve 'modern problems' - charities, faith groups and philanthropy:
"There's a clear choice between our approach and Gordon Brown's.
"A Labour Prime Minister who says that only the state can deliver fairness, and a Conservative Party fighting for people and communities, to unleash the power and positive spirit of our fantastic voluntary organisations and social enterprises."
The effect, defining Cameron as fresh and exciting, is distilled in the final words of his first of two speeches at the 2006 Tory conference:
"I am optimistic about human nature. That's why I will trust people to do the right thing. Labour are pessimists. They think that without their guidance, people will do the wrong thing. That's why they want to regulate and control. So let us show clearly which side we are on. Let optimism beat pessimism. Let sunshine win the day."
What about the C1s/C2s?
It is interesting that Cameron's touchy-feely strategy does not seem to be aimed at C1/C2 voters, a crucial part of the New Labour coalition. These voters are not part of the 'most disadvantaged in society' but still have to work hard to ensure their families sustain a decent standard of living and to make their aspirations a reality. And it is understandable how they were alienated by the Labour in the 1980s.
After the 2005 General Election, Liam Byrne MP argued forcefully for Labour courting this group again in a post-mortem paper for the Fabian Society. Quoting from Giles Radice's Southern Discomfort pamphlets, published in the early 1990s and exploring the party's weakness among the aspirant southern working class, he described the crucial group like this:
"The critical C1 and C2 sections which made up 51 per cent of the population, who saw themselves as 'upwardly mobile' and who despite the growing recession, felt 'let down by the Tories but [did] not yet trust Labour' – a party they felt did not 'believe in go-getters' and which, when asked, they associated with words like 'high tax', followed by 'extremism', 'NHS', 'working class', 'of the past' and 'economic mismanagement'."
Meanwhile, Luke Akehurst who stood for Labour in the Thames Estuary seat of Castle Point in 2005, describes the key sectors like this:
"We are basically talking people who used to vote Labour until 1979 then lots of whom defected to the Tories in the '80s. Right-to-buy on council housing would have been a huge factor in generating support for Thatcher in
[places like] Dagenham.
"It should have been a heartland Labour area and now is again but certainly wasn't then - in both 1983 and 1987 the Tories came within 3,000 votes of winning Dagenham.
"The same would be true of seats with similar demography: "white flight" from the inner city and automotive industry jobs in the Midlands…Whilst voters in that part of the world are sometimes quite left wing on say, public services or support for manufacturing, they are highly aspirational (by definition - they are either first or second generation East Enders who did a Tebbit and "got on their bikes")."
Cameron's strategy seems to ignore completely, or at least not be aimed at, this vital voting sector.
Traditional supporters of the welfare state, who may be attracted by Cameron's rhetoric, should be wary of his potential policies as well. An emphasis on philanthropy and charities to help the poorest turns the poorest, quite literally, into charity cases. Cameron's line seems to be that those worthy of our pity should be rescued by the well-intentioned at best and the moralistic and preachy at worst. This presents Labour with a golden opportunity to adopt a narrative that can capture the votes of welfarists and the C1/C2 sectors.
Cameron could be exposed by a party who promised to empower citizens to realise their potential without patronising them - in other words, one that enables them to stand on their own two feet. Labour could become the party of self-reliance and community at the same time.
Many of Labour's policies already combine community or state intervention with self-reliance. These include the legal minimum wage, the pathways to work programme for those on long-term disability benefit, the working family tax credits and the commitment to end child poverty.
Labour probably has enough policies already in the tank to justify employing this rhetoric. And there are plenty of radical measures that may not appear to fall under this argument but are certainly not incompatible with it - like a trade union freedoms bill, or comprehensive education.
What do 'helping people to help themselves' policies look like?
Some may be convinced by the advantages of adopting this rhetorical line without seeing any need for new imaginative policies. But what would policies, grounded in a notion of helping people help themselves, bringing together community and self-reliance look like? Here are a few back-of-the-envelope sketches.
Hypothecated welfare could re-engage aspirant voters, making life that little bit easier for hard-working families.
A British Universal Inheritance, of lets say £10,000 paid out to each citizen at the age of 21, to start them off in life, could be funded by inheritance tax. The age, figure and whether spending should be restricted to housing, education, entrepreneurship etc, could be debated. The important point would be that citizens would take responsibility for their lives. Rather than some children being given a head start because of mummy or daddy, or Cameron's paternalistic welfarism.
Or the Government could become more involved in shared equity housing ownership, perhaps the only way many aspirants will make their way onto the property ladder.
A fund could be made available for local councils, with knowledge of the local housing market, to become partners with first time buyers in purchasing their own property. When the residents sell, the public sector would receive a return on its investment. Land Value Tax could be a possible source of funding.
At community level, welfare could be delivered without patronising recipients by radically democratising provision. At the moment the Government attempts to blackmail council tenants into privatising their estates. Why not transfer them, without the sham votes, onto tenant run-boards? It may be time to split up the National Health Service, but why by selling it off? Why not make the Primary Care Trusts and Hospital Trusts accountable to elected boards, and then residents and users can decide whether they want to contract out services or not.
Already Labour's New Deal for Communities allows those affected to have a say in regenerating their area. The party should also look at how local residents can have a say in the local justice system, be it ASBO policy or advising community security teams on what their priorities should be.
A radically democratised welfare state would contrast well with command and control from Whitehall. But it would also tackle Cameron's strategy head on. Do you want some self-appointed do-gooder telling you how your local community should be run or someone locally accountable to you? These are only sketches of possible policies and it would need huge amounts of work to develop them. But they give a flavour of what a Labour self-reliance agenda would look like.
It may be a cliché, but these policies are a framework of a welfare state that gives people a hand up, not a hand out. That enables people to make their own choices, rather than have their betters make their decisions for them. And crucially, they still lie in the Labour tradition. They are funded by redistributive taxes or hark back to the party's co-operative roots.
It is clear that adopting this strategy would not solve all the Labour's problems - general ennui with the Government, heightened tensions on race and immigration and Cameron's lead on the environment to name just a few.
But it could blow the Tories' social justice offensive out of the water and show them up as aristocratic and paternalistic. Voters would have a clear choice. A weakening Conservatives versus an empowering Labour, a patronising Cameron versus a straight-down-the-line Brown. People taking responsibility for their lives rather than being put in their place as deserving poor. This is surely a vision that could go some way towards again uniting the New Labour coalition again.