Tory leader David Cameron says he’s "fighting this election for the great ignored":
Young, old, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight. They start our businesses, operate our factories, teach our children, clean our streets, grow our food, keep us safe. They work hard, pay their taxes, obey the law.
They’re good, decent people – they’re the people of Britain and they just want a reason to believe that anything is still possible in Britain.
With this catch-all description, commentators are wondering whether there’s anyone in Britain who isn’t part of "the great ignored". But look more closely and the rhetorical move makes more sense.
If the great ignored are those who "work hard, pay their taxes, obey the law" then the great un-ignored must be those who don’t work, who don’t pay taxes and who don’t obey the law. Without making it explicit, Cameron is tapping into voters’ anger about welfare recipients and those who aren’t taking responsibility for themselves and their families. Somewhere out there are people who sponge off others, refuse to take responsibility for their children, and who engage in antisocial behaviour. And the government is letting them get away with it.
In an interview for Sky News, Cameron spelled it out more clearly. He said that people who did the right thing were being punished and those who did the wrong thing were being rewarded:
I think there is a real problem with responsibility in this country. If you do the right thing, if you work hard, if you obey the law, if you try to do the right thing by your family, all too often you are punished for being responsible and we reward people who do all the irresponsible things. And that does need to change. And I think the ignored feel ignored and actually wants a government that stands up for them.
This is a populist appeal to social justice. While social justice is often defined in terms of equality of income or a distribution of resources according to need, it can also be understood as rewarding people according to what they contribute to the community.
At Beyond Intractability, Michelle Maiese writes: "When people have a sense that they are at an unfair disadvantage relative to others, or that they have not received their fair share, they may wish to challenge the system that has given rise to this state of affairs." And that’s just what the Cameron campaign is hoping for.
Bill Clinton made the same appeal in 1992 when he declared that he was "fighting for the forgotten middle class."
With the US in recession, Clinton claimed that the American ideal had been shattered: "The ideal that if you work hard and play by the rules you’ll be rewarded, you’ll do a little better next year than you did last year, your kids will do better than you. But that idea has been devastated for millions of Americans. "
Tony Blair liked the line so much that he adopted it as his own. He campaigned for "middle-income Britain" and promised to reward those "who work hard and do well". His successor, Gordon Brown also promised "to reach out to all those who work hard and play by the rules".
Some commentators like Hopi Sen hear echoes of Richard Nixon’s 1969 ‘silent majority’ speech. Nixon wanted to draw attention to the majority of voters who were not against the war in Vietnam. According to William Safire, the phrase ‘silent majority‘ was Nixon’s own invention.
The silent center, the millions of people in the middle spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly… We must remember that all the center is not silent, and all who are silent are not center. But a great many quiet Americans have become committed to social problems that preserve personal freedom (audio).
Political Analysts Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg continued the theme with their book The Real Majority. They argued that, unlike the activists attracting attention in the media, most voters were "un-young, un-poor, un-black, un-college and un-political." The typical voter, they said, is "the forty-seven-year-old wife of a machinist living in suburban Dayton, Ohio."
This typical voter worried about problems like crime, declining standards in education and welfare dependency. According to Wattenberg, there is a near consensus among voters that these problems are important. There is also a widespread belief that they are caused by bad government policy.
Reading between the lines, the culprits are likely to be young, poor, black, college educated and political. In other words, a dangerous alliance of an over-educated and politically engaged elite and an underclass of young, poor and un-white people.
In his later work Wattenberg blamed "liberal special interest groups" such as "civil rights, feminist, gay, environmental, consumer, civil libertarian, welfare, peace …" for many of America’s problems. He claimed that these groups portrayed special interest groups as victims and held ordinary Americans morally responsible. He dubbed it the "failure and guilt complex".
Wattenberg argued that it was these liberal special interest groups who were the cause of problems like welfare dependency. And this analysis was an invitation to politically organised anger. How dare these interest groups try to make us feel guilty!
In the Guardian, Libby Brooks worries about David Cameron’s appeal to the Great Ignored. She asks "in telling people they’ve been ignored, don’t you just invite them to respond with anger, frustration and distrust of their fellow citizens?"
Cameron has tried hard to avoid attacks on many of the groups Wattenberg grumbles about. For example, he’s made a serious effort to shore up the party’s environmental credentials. But this just focues attention more closely on ‘broken society‘ issues like welfare dependency, crime and drug abuse.
Perhaps the Tories should make What About Me, their new campaign theme tune:
What about me? It isn’t fair
I’ve had enough, now I want my share
Can’t you see, I wanna live
But you just take more than you give