“It’s not an exclusive definition, the battler is somebody who finds in life that they have to work hard for everything they get… normally you then look at it in terms of somebody who’s not earning a huge income but somebody who is trying to better themselves, and I’ve always been attracted to people who try to better themselves.”
That was how John Howard defined his concept of the “battlers”. The concept was crucial to helping him build an electoral coalition that enabled his Liberal Party to win four straight elections. Howard succeeded in standing for what we Brits would call the “strivers”.
He built his electoral victories on attracting the upwardly mobile working class – making clear that he was “one of them” and understood their needs and concerns. A “Howard battler” was a working class voter, who had traditionally voted Labor, but shifted to the Liberals based on the belief that John Howard’s party was standing up for them and understood their concerns.
The slogan for his first election victory in 1996 was “for all of us” – setting out in pretty clear terms that his party was a national party, rather than a sectional party. Howard’s success was built on the idea that the centre right could not just rely on its traditional base of support, extending his coalition to include working class voters, trade unionists and public sector workers. For John Howard, gaining the blue collar vote was an essential part of electoral success.
The modern British Conservative Party has much to learn from John Howard.
The Conservative Party in the UK is the only centre right party in the English speaking world that cannot rely on a sizeable amount of the blue collar vote. In 1996, in Australia, the Liberals got a higher proportion of the blue collar vote than Labor. In the US, the Republicans have a fairly consistent lead amongst white, working class voters (that lead was as high as 23 per cent in 2004).
In the UK, by contrast, the Conservatives have failed to make anything close to a breakthrough in the blue collar vote. Despite almost perfect electoral conditions at the last election, David Cameron’s party only gained 37 per cent of the votes of skilled manual workers. Neither party was able to successfully relate to the “battlers” in Britain at the last election, which is a major reason for the inconclusive result.
AT present, the Conservatives have the problem that they lack empathy with blue collar voters – a problem that Howard never had a problem with. A part of his electoral genius was that he was able to empathise with blue collar voters, as well as offering both determined leadership and reassurance. It did, of course, help a great deal that he had policies that resonated particularly well with working class voters.
John Howard gave a speech at a Policy Exchange lunch today, in which he reminded people in a very powerful speech why he was such a successful electoral force.
If they are to govern lone after the next election, the Conservative Party will need to take a leaf from John Howard’s book and consider ways to appeal to the British “battlers” and aspirational blue collar voters.