Friday 25 March 2022

Undestanding what the target is


The Chancellor has been almost universally criticised by the media and opposition parties for failing to help the most economically vulnerable to overcome the challenge of increased costs, especially of food and energy. But ‘helping the most vulnerable’ was almost certainly not his objective, and nor is it the criterion on which he and Johnson will judge his success. From the Tory perspective, there are actually two very different groups which are the ‘most vulnerable’ to the current economic problems.

Group A is what they like to call the ‘JAMs’, those people who are ‘just about managing’. People with a mortgage who will struggle to keep up with payments if interest rates rise, people who are finding it difficult to pay the increased cost of fuel for their cars, people facing hikes in domestic fuel bills, pensioners who have a small occupational pension on top of their state pension – these fit the Tory definition of vulnerable.

Group B, on the other hand, includes people in rented accommodation who can't afford to buy a home, people who cannot afford a car never mind the fuel to put in it, people who depend on benefits and/or food banks, pensioners totally reliant on the state pension – these will fit most people’s definition of economically vulnerable, but they’re not the target group the Tories are aiming to help, as is obvious from the measures announced this week.

Some have argued that this is a difference between those who can be presented as the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’, but I suspect that the truth is much more cynical than that – it’s about who is most likely to be persuadable to vote Tory. The Tories, after all, have one and only one objective in mind – retaining power. ‘Protecting the most vulnerable potential Tory voters’ is more useful to achieving that aim than ‘protecting the most vulnerable in society’.

One thing we know is that the more people find themselves struggling, the less likely they are to engage with political activity. Many in Group B are non-voters, sometimes recognising that making the effort to go out and vote will make little difference to their situation, but often just not having the time and energy to care about anything other than their immediate needs. There are some Tory voters in this group, especially amongst pensioners, but the Tories can reasonably conclude that if someone is still voting for them despite being in their current plight after 12 years of Tory governments, then nothing the government can do is likely to lose them many more votes in this group. But if non-voters are lifted up enough to be able to start thinking about politics, they are more likely to be anti-Tory voters than government supporters.

Group A, on the other hand, includes many who are key targets; it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the strength of Tory support in this group could determine the outcome of an election. Spending as little as possible on helping Group B means that there is more available to help Group A, where it might have more political impact. And Group B are a convenient group to demonise as scroungers – getting the not so well-off (Group A) to blame the poorest (Group B) fits a political narrative as well, and is one of the oldest tricks in the divide and rule playbook. Keeping them in their place is deliberate, not accidental.

The question which Sunak and Johnson will be asking themselves is not ‘have we protected the most vulnerable?’ – that was never their objective. It is, rather, ‘have we done enough to persuade enough JAMs to continue voting for us to be able to win the next election?’ And that isn’t just a question of economics; all the prejudices about deliberately doing more to help the ‘hard-working’ instead of the ‘layabouts’ come into play as well. The answer to that question is far from being as clear-cut as the near-universal criticism of Sunak suggests. I suspect that he’s probably misjudged even that – again. Just as he did at the start of the pandemic, he’s underestimated the scale of the crisis facing us, and is likely to be back with further measures shortly in order to avoid what is otherwise going to hit even his favoured JAMs very hard indeed. And whilst being extremely wealthy shouldn’t of itself rule someone out of being Chancellor, it’s reasonable to ask whether someone who is personally in a position to ride out any financial storm which comes along is ever going to understand just how much difference a fairly small amount of money can make to so many people, a factor which may well contribute to his repeated inadequate responses. That’s a practical question, based on the context as they see it; the more philosophical question about whether they should care is one that doesn’t even cross their minds.


dafis said...

Just feel that you need to understand that some definitely do not conform to your Group A &B characterisation. I'm definitely Group A,have always felt an affinity and concern for Group B as some of my family have existed in that group for some time. Be assured I have never voted Tory in any Senedd or UK election. At local councils I may have voted "Tory in disguise" by backing the odd Independent on occasion just because he/she was an effective local community advocate.Given their recent antics this current Tory regime is highly unlikely to persuade me to give them the stamp of approval.

John Dixon said...


Sorry if I gave a misleading impression - I wasn't trying to suggest that 'all' people in either group are the same, or that all vote the same way, merely that, from a Tory perspective, the 'return on investment' from helping group A is likely to be considerably higher than the RoI for group B. Asessing it in terms of the RoI is a good fit with their ideology as well. They don't need to win over all of Group A, just enough; and if they do that, any in Group B who switch despite not being targetted is just a lucky bonus.