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Harnessing envy and resentment could be the key to GE15

November 29th, 2014

Never mind “we’re all in it together”: eat the rich (or foreigners)!

Blame is of almost limitless supply in politics but that’s not to say it doesn’t retain significant value if fashioned with skill. Two policy announcements this week gave ample good indication that both Labour and the Conservatives are more than willing to make much of that raw material over the next six months. On the one hand, Labour built on its pledge to put up income tax and introduce a mansion tax by targeting private schools; on the other, the Conservatives sought to address their abundant failure to control immigration by proposing deeper cuts to benefits for migrants. What they have in common is that both parties’ policies are likely to be superficially popular, both run counter to their record of delivery in government and both target unpopular minorities perceived to be doing too well in straightened economic times.

Whether they’ll be successful in doing so is another matter. For one thing, as mentioned, neither has clean hands on their topics of choice; for another, it’s difficult leading a people’s revolution when you’re seen as being a class apart from the people.

There should be little doubt that the disillusionment with the established Westminster parties is just a part of a wider and widespread resentment of an apparently self-insulated and out-of-touch elite not just in politics (see Emily Thornberry and Andrew Mitchell for recent examples) but across all sectors, public and private, reaping great rewards while suffering few penalties when things go wrong. Against decreasing social mobility, it’s therefore unsurprising that those who feel excluded should be resentful of the gilded few. In reality, success rarely comes easily even to those with money and contacts but it certainly comes more readily than to those without.

Electorally, there should be much to gain from pitching in with the plebs (if we can use such a word), at least in the short term. Playing the blame game adroitly has worked wonders so far for UKIP and the SNP, but then they were able to credibly assume the role of outsiders and preach to an audience ready to listen. The contrast with the Lib Dems, who were unfortunate to switch from outsiders to insiders at just the wrong time, is obvious and stark (in 2010, there was one UKIP voter for every 7.5 Lib Dems; today there are about fifteen). It’s far less likely that the Tories or Labour can play it as well as the insurgent parties; what’s telling is that they’re choosing (or having) to play it at all.

Which brings us to the question as to will it work – for if it can, the prize is surely the key to Downing Street. The answer to that can be summed up in one word: credibility. Do they mean what they say or are they simply mouthing focus group findings, and even if they do, can they be relied on to implement their plans? Both parties have a long way to go before they can gain a pair of ticks on those questions.

But there is a downside to the politics of resentment and envy, particularly for parties of government which also seek to attract moderate, centrist floating voters – people not necessarily motivated by those factors. There’s also the matter that in government it’s a lot easier to destroy than to replace and the risk is that you end up in the middle of the rubble.

Still, this week marked another step towards a campaign dominated by hostility against groups distrusted by target voters, and by assurances of protection against them or their effects. It won’t be nice. It probably won’t be effective. But in the absence of anything better, it won’t stop.

David Herdson