David Box gives his partner Seema Sett the dorky, Mr Bean-ish look, with the back of his tongue poking out of his gob that he knows always makes her smile when she’s had a rough day. The kids are asleep and they’re in bed too, sprawled on top of the duvet. The tablet is streaming one of their favourite series: Babylon 5. Season 2, the episode where the Technomages first appear. Pure nostalgia for their student days. They’re both a bit geekly about sci-fi: maths graduates, what do you expect? Lying prone, she stretches her hand up, strokes his face, says she’s tired but if he wants to turn that bloody thing off, she has something else in mind before they go to sleep.
If past general elections were defined by demographics spoken about for months in advance – Essex Man, Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman – the surprise results of 2017’s snap poll were driven most of all by Mr Box and Ms Sett: the people whom nobody saw coming and nobody much realised existed. This year’s local elections shows that they haven’t gone away.
Middle-class, entering middle-age, and hitherto deeply depoliticised, last year they voted for a Labour Party led by an overt Marxist perhaps to their own surprise and in numbers that still haven’t really seeped into the consciousness of political analysts and pundits a year later: 50% of 35-44 year olds voted for Corbyn’s Labour last June. At the point in their lives when their financial commitments and personal responsibilities are greatest, with kids at school and jumbo mortgages barely starting to be paid off, only 30% opted for Theresa May’s message of Tory stability.
On Epochal Political Shifts
In the late 1970s, it was young, prosperous, skilled, blue-collar workers who were about to deliver a radical change in the balance of political opinion in Britain. Detaching themselves from family loyalties to Labour that had existed for the two generations since poor Britons first won the vote, they flocked to Margaret Thatcher’s message of hard work, self-reliance, and opposition to the choking stranglehold of bureaucracy and unions.
Thirty years later, that vision is looking increasingly hollow to those who were schoolchildren during the Thatcher revolution, from the bottom of the social scale to the top. Those who work in the public sector haven’t seen an inflation-matching pay rise for eight years, which puts downward pressure on wages even for those in the private and third sectors. The house price spiral keeps them trapped on the same step of the housing ladder if they’re lucky enough to have bought; if they rent, costs are spiralling even more rapidly, while security of tenancy has vanished and is usually hemmed in with massive deposits and restrictive clauses that would have been unimaginable in their turn-of-the-millennium house shares. Both last year’s election and this one’s took place during a round of staff cuts in their children’s schools that went unnoticed by the national press, still less by the strategists who ran the Tory election campaigns.
Behind it all, post-Referendum Britain has deeply unsettled them. A majority accept that Brexit has to mean Brexit (although they would probably be delighted if it all unravelled). Culturally, however, they are deeply unsettled, wondering if a reinvented monochrome vision of 1950s Britain that they find abhorrent is going to be imposed on them, where minorities knew their place and children were seen and not heard. In that context, Windrush was toxic even for many who could not themselves imagine being caught up in an immigration sweep. Many have spent their lives in racially mixed schools, colleges, and workplaces; they are people from somewhere, but that somewhere is one that even for whites involves old pals from school who are black and best mates at work who are Asian. It is somewhere from which it is the land of ‘go home vans’ that seems like a foreign country.
This was only reinforced last year’s eye-wateringly tone deaf Tory messaging on grammar schools, fox hunting and “red white and blue Brexit”. It was that fear of being dragged into an alien world, I think, that meant that while few citied opposition to Brexit as a reason for their vote, there were startling swings to Labour in heavily Remain areas.
Meet the Box-Setts
Let’s go back to the Box-Setts, and look their patchy history of interaction with politics, their values, their careers, and what is making them very worried at present.
David and Seema always find it easy to remember the date of their anniversary, because it was the night of the general election that first elected Tony Blair. 1 May 1997. They weren’t political. Nobody much studying Maths at Birmingham University in the mid-‘90s was. It wasn’t that sort of era. But they’d both voted that day – Labour, of course – and they first met at a party to watch the results.
They’d caught each other’s eye across the lecture hall a few times before that: David, openside flanker for the Uni rugby team, a doctor’s son from a independent day school up North with long flowing dirty-fair locks; Seema, the daughter of immigrant Hindu factory workers from the sprawling interwar council estates near Heathrow Airport, with her Asian Bride good looks. But it was that night that they first spoke. It was one of those legendary student nights: a big shared house that a few flatmates lived in, packed to the brim and thick with Golden Virginia fumes, a few bottles of wine, a spliff or two passed around, Britpop on the CD player, and the scenes on the TV marking the birth of a new era.
They stayed with the party until ten past two, when David’s hometown of Harrogate voted out the high profile Chancellor, Norman Lamont. Even his eternally Tory father had voted Lib Dem that day to oust him.
They were definitely not still up for Portillo, as far more momentous events in their lives were taking place. By the time the returning officer stepped up at Enfield Southgate just after 3 a.m., they were half a mile away in David’s bedroom and making love. It was the first time for Seema. But it wasn’t just a shag for either of them – far from it. It was love at first sight and twenty years on they love each other more than ever.
Afterwards, they went for a stroll as the Brummie dawn broke, warm and sunny as it was across almost the whole of the UK that day. Seema stole an election sign for their local candidate “Vote Stewart Labour”, their constituency having been the site of yet another seemingly improbable gain. They went to the park and played a stupid game of pretend cricket with the sign and an empty coke can, before heading to a greasy spoon for breakfast. So they remembered the name, and were a bit surprised and disappointed years later to find the woman they’d cast their first vote for was fronting up the Leave campaign.
Seema trained as a primary teacher, and David got work as an analyst in the financial services industry in the City – not one of the ones earning a six figure salary, he sometimes has to point out. Politics was a long way from their minds then, and it would be years before they even voted again. The lure of Seema’s family meant they decided to live on the west side of London, moving ever further out. They started in a shared house in Shepherd’s Bush (how strange now to think they could afford that in 1999 on one starter salary and a teacher training grant!), then a rented flat on their own in West Ealing, then bought their first flat in Reading not too far from the station, and then when the kids arrived they moved on out to their current home, the three bedroom house on the outskirts of Swindon, David blown ever further away from work by spiralling property prices.
The house, built in 2007 and only previously owned by a speculator who kept it empty for years, is functional and boxy, like its location, near where the M4 meets the Western Relief Road, and three miles bike ride into Swindon Station for David in the mornings. It’s a reasonable bang for their buck, but it’s not exactly massive and the unfenced front lawn is a bit pathetic. It’s a long way from what David remembers being the norm among his friends’ families in his bourgeois Yorkshire childhood.
The annual season ticket has now spiked to well over £8,000 per year. What looks on paper to be a good income is rapidly consumed by this, the mortgage, childcare costs, and the petrol for Seema to drive 47 miles each way to her teaching job on the far side of Bristol.
It was in 2010, with their first daughter on the way and searching for a house that would involve a much bigger mortgage, that they started voting again. For David, it was an easy decision to vote for Cameron’s Conservatives – their image and message was pretty much designed to appeal to people like him. For Seema, it involved a bit more soul searching, but ultimately she felt it was time for a change and they couldn’t afford any risk of the deep recession turning into a rerun of the Great Depression of their school textbooks. The fact that their local Tory candidate, who made Reading West one of 96 Tory gains that year, was not just a moderate Tory but one of Indian extraction, also helped, although she’d never admit it, even to herself.
In 2015, it was an easy decision to keep voting for Cameron. This wasn’t a point in their lives when they could afford to take any risks, not with Seema planning to return to work part time after the summer holidays, once their second daughter started at the playgroup. Despite what the newspaper headlines screamed at the train and petrol stations in the mornings, Ed Milliband seemed like a nice guy – a bit of a geek, just like them! But you couldn’t really see him sitting down to negotiate with Putin, Merkel, and Obama, could you? They’d even started voting in local elections too.
Then came the Referendum. They voted Remain – of course – as did the vast majority of people they knew: even David’s Tory Dad did, in the process of downsizing to a sheltered flat in Knaresborough and living in one of the few Remainer strongholds in the North. “Moaning about immigration?” he bellowed down the phone with his characteristic Yorkshire bluntness: he was starting to spend more time at the hospital, and he was still enough of a saw-bones to know what he was talking about, the NHS wouldn’t work if it weren’t for immigrants. So they thought it was going to be a shoe-in for Remain.
They both felt a palpable shock when they switched the radio on at six o’clock that morning, to get ready for David’s daily drag of a commute. Even 6 Music was majoring on politics that day. Surely people couldn’t have been that… stupid! There were a handful of jubilant traders at David’s work – barrow boys or far-out libertarian types in giant red braces, mostly – but generally the shock was just as palpable in the City as in their home that day. The pound and the FTSE had jumped off a cliff the previous night, when the result became clear.
But the sky didn’t fall in, as it turned out, and within a few weeks politics returned to being something in the background. The economy didn’t collapse. It was a warm and lovely summer in England’s middle-west. Something sensible would be worked out; the Germans would still want to sell us cars and the Italians would still want to sell us Prosecco. Seema’s brother, Nivin, who runs an upscale Indian restaurant in Theresa May’s Maidenhead was one of the few who people in their circle who voted Leave, and he assured them it would all work out. He would be able to recruit Indian chefs again, instead of teaching Poles and Romanians about aloo gobi. Of course, we’d still trade and we’d still need immigrants – it just meant we’d be in charge, recruiting the best talent from India and Ghana, instead of having to take anybody from Eastern Europe with a Ryanair fare (not that his staff weren’t good workers, but you know?)
As summer turned to autumn, however, the mood changed. Too much talk of foreign lands and people from nowhere. Then there was an altercation in September, on the commute to Seema’s new full-time job in the school on a South Bristol estate. She and a bloke in a white van, both late for work and in a rush, went for the same spot in the petrol station queue. They started shouting at one another.
“I can’t wait for the day when you lot all have to fuck off where you came from”, he bellowed, “not long now!”
“What, Hounslow, you mean?” she spat back with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Hounslow is practically in fucking Pakistan, isn’t it? For now. Not for much longer.”
She was shaking all day at school and when David finally got home at a quarter to eight that night she burst into tears in his arms. That sparked a frenzied round of conversation once the kids had gone to bed, and then over a number of nights. Should they consider whether they could all get Indian passports and dual citizenship? Who knew how things would turn out here? Would they need a bolt hole if things got bad?
For Seema, it had been a frightening intimation that the stories her parents told her about the National Front in the ‘70s could no longer be dismissed as tales of a mercifully forgotten past. For David, for the first time, it brought home the reality that there were people who would always hate his little lasses, his own flesh and blood, just because of the colour of their skin.
But they never did anything about it, and things soon returned to normal again. There was, though, that time in school, for Seema, in an area where a traditionally White working-class community was not always coping easily with a growing Somali population, when the roughest Year 6 boys from either camp faced off in the playground, wild amateurish punches mixing with the sort of language the staff had rarely had to deal with in the past – you kuffar, you mozzer, I’ll cut your head off for ISIS, I’ll send you back out of our country. But both lads were troublemakers, with fathers who were even worse. The rest of the kids all got on fine.
Then the election was called, at first seemingly a triumphal march for May, but Seema was getting politics in a big way. They were having to sack three of the classroom assistants because of budget cuts, older local women from the estate, who were great with the kids, almost surrogate grannies, especially for the unsettled ones. They were at brilliant getting the Somali mothers involved with their kids’ schooling, even the ones who had virtually no English, and for many of the Somali women, the assistants were the first non-Muslim friends they’d ever made.
Seema loved all the kids, as a born primary teacher, but there was something about the Somali girls that touched her deeply, reminding her so much of herself when she was seven or eight. So often very clever, so keen to please, with parents who hadn’t quite realised that there was no limit to what women could achieve in Britain, of whatever religion or race, if they were encouraged at home. Or was that really true anymore? As the election campaign built Seema became convinced that it was Corbyn who was the true heir of that election song of their student days – Things Can Only Get Better.
David was a lot more sceptical, but he was surprised to hear some people at work say they’d vote Labour, even a few of the traders – he couldn’t win, but he could trim the crazier Tories’ sails. If Labour did well, they said, it would at least put a brake on the David Davises and Rees-Moggs. And as a protest vote, it made a certain amount of sense to him. He was just horrified by the idea of the guy actually running the country – he seemed to have a degree of integrity about him, he’d never changed his tune for promotion, that was true – but maybe that wasn’t a great accolade when his ideas were so stupid. Caracas on the Thames? And still more than with Red Ed, could you see Corbyn sitting down to negotiate with Putin? Then again, May wasn’t much better.
Seema voted early that morning on the way to work and enthusiastically, her Mum and her sisters too, gleefully exchanging high-fiving WhatsApp messages about voting Labour.
David voted very late on, after the kids had gone to bed, as the polling station was still not open when he began his morning trek. His hand wavered over the ballot paper, but he was just too scared by what a Corbyn government might mean for the City, and after about 10 seconds he marked his cross by the sitting Tory MP, Robert Buckland, the Solicitor General. He still hasn’t told Seema yet, nearly a year later. Buckland held on by 2,464 when he must have been expecting a landslide, but a further swing to Labour of just 2.4% – less than half that achieved by Cameron in 2010, for example, would see him go in the next election.
Come the local elections in 2018, she still voted early, and he voted late: juggling two jobs and two young kids meant that was a given. David didn’t see much harm in voting Labour. He could always vote differently come a general election, and the local candidate came to knock the door, on an unseasonably cold and viciously wet April night, just as David’s bike braked into the driveway from the station at a quarter-to-eight sunset. They both looked ridiculous, with soaked fringes of hair poking out under the hoods of their rain jackets, which both found hysterically funny. If the bloke was knocking doors on a night like that, he’d probably be the sort you’d want as a councillor, whatever his party.
Labour gained the seat, but that was the only one that they gained on Swindon Council, which remained, like the Borough’s two MPs in Tory hands, albeit not by a lot, with big Labour gains among the young and middle-aged only just outpacing older UKIP voters coming to the Tory column: either coming back, or for the first time after what was hitherto a lifetime of loyalty to Labour. Labour did outpoll the Tories across the borough by just 1%, a result that would see Robert Buckland’s seat fall (Labour target number 43) and North Swindon (target 104) stay with the Tories, albeit not terribly comfortably.
The New British Political Faultline: Age
The local elections this week confirmed the pattern first seen in last year’s general election. The political shifts of the past two years have involved dramatic shifts in loyalty, which have just about netted to Labour’s advantage, but not overwhelmingly. To some extent these are visible by class and region, but even more by age. In no British election since the advent of a broad franchise, and few anywhere in the world, has voting behaviour been so narrowly defined by age. In 2017, young lower working-class voters came out in numbers not seen since the 1980s and even those who voted Leave voted Labour in floods.
My hypothesis is this: Brexit forced people to reconsider old loyalties, on both sides of the equation, but Brexit was just one of a range of issues people were thinking about. Political enthusiasts forget that for many, it is not the most important political issue.
So far, the Brexit-bounce for Tories among older working-class voters in the North and Midlands has not delivered much, not least because their children and grandchildren still living in these ageing communities haven’t shifted. This was the whole basis of the 2017 Tory election campaign and Theresa May’s premiership so far. There is an increased Tory vote among these groups, but it netted only a handful of gains in last year’s general election, and only a little better in the local elections this week. Labour majorities in seats dominated by older working-class voters were cut dramatically, but they were mostly so enormous it was a loss Labour could take.
Among the young, not just among students, but among all those on the ‘right’ side of middle-aged, however, the upheaval of recent years has netted a significant gain for Labour. The Referendum happened when the reality of years of austerity since the 2008 crash was already starting to bite – in much of shire England, the police can now only mount a skeleton force, and there are wife-beaters and child-molesters and drug-dealers selling to kids in roughly the same numbers in Wiltshire and Cheshire as there are in supposed urban crime hotspots. Schools are shedding support staff like trees shed leaves in October. Potholes have gone for years without being fixed.
It is often forgotten that there are more voters with children at school than there are students at university. Many, many, more
This cuts across class lines: if you went to an independent school and have done alright, you probably can’t afford the same for your children as the mortgage is swallowing your pay, and your old school has more than made up the numbers with the children of nouveau riches from Russia and China. Meanwhile your son in Year 10 in the local comp is an even more attractive target to sell drugs to than the kids on the estate (you may not know about County Lines where you are, but here in the southern English shires, we know all about it). The pothole is no less likely to crack your wheel than anyone else’s.
The Tories would in any circumstances by this the stage, after eight years in government, have been at the point when blaming their predecessors for all that was wrong in the country just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Then Brexit created a huge cultural rift between them and most people for whom the European Union was a lifelong given – occasionally irritating but fundamentally positive. That pro-European sentiment was most intense among the best educated who were already in careers in industry, finance and public services where their working life depended on working with counterparts on the continent who were friends as well as professional partners: in other words most natural Tory voters aged under 45. Then Theresa May’s weird attempt to sell a return to the 1950s backfired electorally.
All this in turn upended the electoral geography. This has provoked a passionate debate inside the Tory Party, which Stephen Bush calls the Bishop Auckland versus Battersea debate. Should the Tories abandoned the prospect of naturally Tory votes from better-off, liberal-minded, people in business and finance to chase the votes of traditional Labour voters who are culturally conservative and staunchly in favour of Brexit?
Last year, in Brexit territory, the Tories picked up a few gains in ageing, rustbelt, parts of Yorkshire and the Midlands. Overall, however, loyalties to Labour among older Leave voters stayed just about firm enough that Labour held. But there are still tempting Tory targets in constituencies that last voted for anyone but Labour in 1931.
In contrast Labour raked in gains in constituencies full of new housing for young long-distance commuters in the exurban motorway corridors of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Teeside, and even more in the youngest parts of the Remain-y South, with heavy use of public transport, not just in London, but in Reading and Bristol and Stroud and Canterbury too.
This also upended the list of target seats for Labour, with big increases in their vote in the mortgage belts of the big southern towns of railway commuters and the exurban North, leaving a lot of Tory MPs in seats Labour last won in 2001, or never at all, in a vulnerable position.
Many of those younger, small ‘l’ liberal, middle-class people, like the Box-Setts, cast a vote for Corbyn despite themselves, something his camarilla took note of at the time but have occasionally forgotten since. If the status remains quo, then many who voted for Labour last year will hesitate to do so again.
But circumstances will change – that is the only permanent given in politics. Dump a recession and house price crash into young, over-indebted, over-mortgaged, Southern England, and don’t be surprised if the Box-Setts in Swindon and Southampton, Gloucester and Stevenage, deliver a mandate for a political revolution in Britain to match 1979.
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