What the ‘squeezed middle’ really want

What the ‘squeezed middle’ really want
by

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 twenty-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 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.

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The “squeezed middle” can be defined in various ways. In this analysis, I apply the term to people who…

a)      Belong to the ABC1 social groups – that is, where the head of household has a white collar job

b)      Are under 60 (because separate issues to do with pensions and age-related benefits tend to dominate policy issues to do with the over 60s)

c)      Currently say either that they can’t afford luxuries or that they struggle to make ends meet.

Let’s 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 can’t 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” (8). It is these 26 that are classified here as “squeezed middle”.

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

  "Comfortable" middle "Squeezed" middle
 

May 2010

%

Oct 2013

%

Change

May 2010

%

Oct 2013

%

Change
Con 41 36 -5 32 27 -5
Lab 30 37 7 32 46 14
Lib Dem 24 14 -10 29 8 -21
UKIP 2 7 5 3 11 8
Other 3 6 3 5 8 3

The big losers are the Liberal Democrats. Their vote among the “squeezed middle” has collapsed by almost three-quarters, from 29% to 8%. In contrast, the Lib Dems have retained most of their support in the “comfortable middle”. Most of the Lib Dem deserters have switched to Labour, but UKIP has also made gains. This is consistent with other YouGov research, which has found that UKIP appeals to many people who are financially insecure.

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

Q. If the Government found in the next year or two that its financial position was better than expected, which one of these do you think would be best...?

a) For Britain as a whole

b) For you and your immediate family

  • Reducing the taxes paid by people like you and/or increasing welfare benefits received by families like yours
  • Spending more on and/or stopping cuts to public services used by families like yours
  • Paying off more of the Government's debts
  • Don’t know
Which would be best... For Britain as a whole For you and your immediate family
 

"Comfortable middle"

%

"Squeezed middle"

%

"Comfortable middle"

%

"Squeezed middle"

%

Lower taxes 14 16 35 40
More spending on public services 31 40 35 37
Reducing the Government's debts 46 34 18 12
Don't know 8 10 12 11

The results 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 “struggling” middle. Few people think lower taxes are the best thing for Britain, but this tend 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.

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 keeps 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 this way rather than paying down the government debt. (Labour must also resist any 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.)

What’s the broad picture; what about specifics: what would help most to ease the day-to-day financial strains of hard-pressed voters? We asked:

Q. If the Government were to decide to put more money into people’s pockets, which two or three of these would you most like to see?

Top choices for easing people's finances

"Comfortable middle"

%

"Squeezed middle"

%

Freezing home energy prices 37 43
Lower income tax 42 42
Lower VAT 40 42
Lower council tax 32 36
Lower fuel duty 35 35
Lower bus / train / tube fairs 28 26
Higher state pension 21 16
Higher income support / housing benefit for low income families 9 12
Higher child benefit 6 9
Higher job seekers' allowance 3 6
Not sure 1 1
None of those 1 0

The responses of the two groups are similar – both to each other and to the electorate as a whole. But it’s 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 the most effective. In the case of the 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.

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

Q. If the Government were to decide to spend more on public services, which two or three of these public services would you most like to get the money?

Spending priorities "Comfortable middle" "Squeezed middle"
Hospitals / local GP surgeries 58 64
Support for the elderly (e.g. care home, social services) 33 41
Schools 34 37
Infrastuctures spending (e.g roads, railways) 42 30
Support for jobs / training / private investment 24 25
The police 22 22
Building more homes 22 20
Britain's armed forces 16 13
Nurseries / childcare 8 13
None of these 1 0
Not sure 3 2

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 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 spend on nurseries and child care. This is one of those instances where the small overall numbers (just 13% 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.

That’s 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 ten 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; their political priorities are heavily influenced by their day-to-day struggle to keep afloat and build a better life for their families. They won’t 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 offer them and their children a brighter future.

This analysis appears in the November issue of Progress

See the full poll results YouGov / Progress

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