Looking beyond the ‘squeezed middle’
It is understandable that democratic politics interests itself with the majority. From Ed Miliband’s ‘the squeezed middle’ to Nick Clegg’s ‘alarm clock Britain’, politicians of red, blue and yellow stripes aim to identify themselves – often with ever sillier catchphrases – as the representatives of the majority. No mainstream party wants to be seen as a sectional interest group, revelling in what they can do for one narrow collection of people. A party for the rich is as electorally doomed as a party for the poor.
It has long been an ethical principle of the left that society should be geared towards benefitting the most disadvantaged. This means not only increasing the life quality and opportunities of the materially poorest, but also those who suffer mental and physical disabilities and those who suffer discrimination based on their race, religion or sexuality.
For many on the left there has been a central, almost irresolvable tension. How do we build a policy programme centrally concerned with helping those who are disadvantaged whilst winning an election in which most voters are not made up of those we are in politics to help?
It is important to know that furthering the cause of a minority and being in line with public concern are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, people who suffer directly from mental health problems are a minority, but they are prevalent enough to mean everyone is concerned with how social services treat them. There are individuals in every single postcode who have loved ones who battle with these issues. There are people from the poorest and richest parts of the country who have cause to complain and worry about the way their family members are treated by mental health services.
Since mental health problems affect so many, an alliance of voters can be built to spearhead political campaigns to increase investment in public service provision. A Labour or Liberal Democrat party that argues for this is not likely to be met by animosity, in fact, more likely by relief.
However, although alliances between smaller and larger electoral groups can be brought together, this is not always the case. There is a long and honourable tradition of the left arguing for those who have been despised. There is also a long and honourable tradition of fighting for what is hugely unpopular.
There are times when politicians have to put aside opinion polls and focus group findings, and cliched though it sounds, do the right thing. Last week I wrote about society’s treatment of asylum seekers and how compassionate policy formation is suffocated by mass public and media ignorance. Ultimately I ended with the conclusion that, some things, however popular, are wrong and should not be committed by a government. Sam Wheeler’s brilliant piece on Tony Blair and New Labour exposed how governments – even ones as glued to the vagaries of opinion polls as New Labour – are able to pursue unpopular actions when the willpower is there.
My hope is that when it comes to treatment of asylum seekers, those on benefits, mental health provision and addiction clinics, Ed Miliband will be ready to put aside his pollster’s flip charts and argue for what is not always popular but right.