‘The past 11 years have shown that security isn't an issue that divides along party lines’
Floating voters are the prick-teasers of politics. They’re almost impossible for sentient politicians to resist, even when they make fools of themselves in the process. But when floating voters come in an identifiable block, then chasing them stops being futile. Find the issue that pushes their button and voters stop being strays and become instead a serious interest group whom you might catch en masse.
There is a tendency to coin a term for the target group – a phrase that makes the quarry imaginable. Whole careers can be made by identifying some suddenly identifiable demographic of a demographic. In the UK we have seen “Mondeo man”, “Worcester woman”, and the unfortunately monikered “Pebbledash man”. In Clinton’s America there were the “soccer moms”. And then came the Bush Administration’s version – the “security moms”. It is debatable whether “security moms” existed, but they were ardently chased during the 2004 US elections. They were believed to be homeowners who picked their kids up from soccer but who cared about security issues, not least the security of their children. It was the “soccer moms” getting serious.
I have no association with soccer, and am – well – not a mom, but “security moms” is probably one of the voter groups I’d otherwise happily fit into: I’m a voter who might lean towards one party but for whom security is the crunch issue. Though I have usually voted Conservative, last year I voted Labour in a by-election because at the time the Tories seemed to have gone soft on Iraq – calling for interminable inquiries and indictments just as the war was going to be turned around by the surge. My vote wasn’t much appreciated. I remember one particularly ungrateful call from a Labour friend who sardonically said something along the lines that: “That’s great: we lost millions of voters over Iraq, and we got you.”
But the past 11 years have shown that security isn’t an issue which divides along party lines. The presumption that the Conservatives are tougher and the Labour party slightly more pacifist-inclined didn’t survive Tony Blair’s first term. The fissure runs not along party political lines, but through the heart of each party. So you can find Labour hawks and Tory doves, Conservative interventionists and left-wing isolationists. It’s certainly made politics more unpredictable, but it’s also meant that for those of us who think about security first, our votes cannot be taken for granted.
Take, for example, the Shadow Cabinet. It has members who are deeply informed about the current challenge: for instance Michael Gove and, just outside the Shadow Cabinet, Paul Goodman. There is even George Osborne, who used to express pride in the now barely whispered “neocon” label. But there are others, such as Baroness Warsi, who find it difficult to describe acts of terror in any language much stricter than you’d use on a naughty child.The problem for security-issue voters is not just the knowledge that there are exemplars and deniers in each party. It is also the fact that a transfer of power might mean a repetition of mistakes.
After a couple of terms, a government has generally spotted the obvious charlatans. But newcomers can be all too easily susceptible. An interesting example of this has come up recently. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which used to presume to speak for Muslims in Britain, has for some time been sidelined by the Labour government. Successive ministers were bitten too many times by the MCB’s U-turns, double-speak and dodgy associations. But now we learn that, having spotted the possibility of official resurrection under a Conservative government, the MCB has been returning through the Conservative back door. Dominic Grieve, the new Shadow Home Secretary, has had two meetings with representatives of the organisation, including a deeply problematic figure called Said Ferjani, co-founder of the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Tunisian Nahda Party. Grieve was apparently asked whether he would appear on an MCB platform and said that in principle, yes, he would.
This sort of thing should cause concern to more than just security issue voters. The fear that a Conservative administration might not just make the same mistakes as the Labour government, but make them in the same order, should worry any voter. Welfare, education, the handling of the apocalyptically anticipated credit crunch may demand more of the Conservative Party’s time when it eventually gets into office than security issues. But when a party has the luxury of opposition to observe its opponents’ mistakes, it’s a bad sign if it doesn’t learn from them.
I suspect that at the next election we’ll be bombarded with a whole new set of linchpin groups. We can probably expect “credit crunch man”, “negative equity woman” and a lot more categories for the parties to chase after. Remembering security moms won’t get the Conservatives into office, but forgetting about them would be more than a political mistake.