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Why the Tories Got the Working Poor Vote and How Labour Can Win It Back

20/10/2015 17:56 BST | Updated 20/10/2016 10:12 BST

Repeat after me: Security. Stability. Sclerosis. Security. Stability. Sclerosis. If you had to describe the Tory austerity mantra in the run up to May's election with three words, these would probably cover it. The intent here is clear; blur the meaning of austerity from political choice to national necessity and you soften public opinion to ideological cuts. This is a choice, though, as researchers this week at the University of Bath have skillfully demonstrated, and such a choice can only be electorally palpable so long as we are persuaded that austerity is something which happens to other people - like students, the unemployed, or the disabled.

Words speak louder than actions

The austerity rhetoric in May was far from perfect, with many seeing through the Tory refusal to set out where £12bn of cuts would be made, and assuming - rightly - that if they were in receipt of Government support they would be vulnerable. But thanks in no small part to the 27% of welfare recipients who took the Tories on their word, their rhetoric was sufficiently deceptive to return a small majority.

Now, though, some of the very people who were happy to dish out austerity at the ballot box find themselves on the receiving end of the Government's 'tough choices'. These are the working poor, in receipt of Tax Credits to supplement their poverty pay, who believed the Conservatives were on their side - only to find themselves first in the firing line. On BBC1's Question Time last week, Michelle Dorrell, a Conservative voter, revealed the human side of the Tory Work Penalty. Almost overnight, Conservative ministers went from giggling at PMQs to sombre silence.

Self-denying votes

This is a policy which will see 3 million of the poorest working families, many of whom in marginal seats, lose an average of £1,300 a year. So see past the polished speeches this conference season and behold the class warfare as it's played out in Britain today. For in this upside-down democracy, if you are in the 1% of the population who earn over £160,000 a year, it is people like Michelle Dorrell who you need to thank. It is her self-denying vote that means you can pass on your estate tax free to your children, buy two rental properties instead of one this year, and get that silver trim you've always wanted for the Bentley.

You can understand why those on the left would be vexed at people like Michelle Dorrell. And she is certainly not alone. There were millions of people on lower-middle incomes, reciting 'aspiration!', while they stifle their own working rights and pay packets; thousands of small high street business owners proudly voting away their competitiveness to tax avoiding corporations; and many, many, devoted parents seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford University or a home of their own.

I have argued that the socioeconomics of Middle England, contrary to popular belief, place Jeremy Corbyn in a rather favourable positon - especially as austerity's tentacles reach beyond easy targets, and hurt the working poor. But to capitalise, Corbyn's supporters must resist condemnation of naïve Tory voters, understand why they voted in such a way, and welcome them back to Labour with open arms. Otherwise, they risk alienating them to a self-righteous caricature their opponents gleefully portray.

Why people vote against their interests

The reason many of the working poor opted for the Tories is quite simple. Modern Conservatism has furnished the political landscape with nebulous sentiments of value based virtue. We're for the strivers, for the aspirational and hard-working, they say, and we're for the flag-wavers and the rational, sensible, Britons who value economic security and stability.

In doing so, the Tories are able to mute material issues. Dwindling social mobility and homeownership are put down to a lack of aspiration, rising inequality and poverty are just collateral for financial stability, and a deficit fetish is sensible housewife economics. This is, of course, an egregious denial of reality - but it is important for Labour to recognise such values are the lie at the heart the Conservative movement. The strategy that makes the whole senseless ideological charade possible by convincing people to vote against their own interests.

Value based Labour

Instead of repeating the Tory trick, as many in Labour seem intent on doing, Corbyn and his team need to come up with a fresh set of their own values - and repeat them, mercilessly, until they become common sense. Values linked to economic security that extol the virtue of public and capital investment, where the proceeds of growth are shared, and in which every citizen has an equal opportunity to be educated and housed. I am heartened this morning to see a Canadian Liberal party elected with a promise to run deficits in the name of infrastructure investment - and times are certainly changing. Keep standing up for the majority with common values, and the deserted voters will return.