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Gareth Thomas: Who won it for the Tories? Life-long Labour voter Didcot Woman


The post-election media coverage has naturally focused on how wrong the polls were. From the Nuneaton declaration onwards, the BBC’s output has had three broad themes: how could the pollsters get it so wrong, a sense of anguish about the loss of their spiritual fellow travellers (that they’ve assumed is shared by their audience) and the accepted wisdom that David Cameron is going to be a hostage to his “right wing”.

Not for the Tories does the nation get treated to the non-stop carnival coverage that greeted Tony Blair’s “breakthrough” or Barack Obama’s “dream”. Oh well. As “right wingers”, we’re accustomed to being ignored or patronised by our betters in the media.

But one thing I haven’t read much about is this: Who exactly won the election for the Tories. We all know that ‘Mondeo Man’, ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Worcester Woman’ are supposed to have played their role in bygone elections. But this time, you’ll struggle in vain for much more than “Lord” Kinnock’s assessment that people have decided they don’t care about their fellow man. Or the dear old NHS; that – just in case you hadn’t heard – whose foundations were laid by a wartime coalition government, not the Labour party. But I think I know exactly who won the election for the Conservatives. It was quite clearly Didcot Woman.

Didcot? Where? Why? How?

Best known for its ‘Parkway’ train station on the main train line west from Paddington, Didcot is a small, nondescript south Oxfordshire town. Crippled by its historic layout, which places social housing opposite a one-sided high street, Didcot remains impervious to renovation and gentrification. Developers instead have built a Pound Shop dominated shopping area a block away from the main drag, giving that area all the convenience of Milton Keynes, without the charm. It was no surprise to locals that the town was 20th in the list of Crap Towns in the popular book of that name.

Didcot Woman does some domestic work for me occasionally. Ad hoc. You could say on a zero hours basis. I call her up when the ironing, cleaning, childcare arrangements and other things get a bit much. She’s lovely really. I’ll call her Eileen. Eileen must be in her late 50s/early 60s. She lives in Didcot with Tony, her husband of 30+ years. Eileen and Tony’s kids have grown up. They’re both lifelong Labour supporters – as are their children: what Mrs Thatcher did to those mineworkers etc – you know the story. Eileen doesn’t like the Tories much. Well, she didn’t. But her life has been transformed by them in the past five years. And this time, she actually voted for them. First time ever. She hasn’t even told Tony. And here’s why.

Tony lost his job 20 years ago. He sunk whatever money he could scrape into a little sole trader business. That failed. He lost his mojo and then found getting work hard. He started claiming benefits. He didn’t like doing this at first. But after a while, he lost hope and started to feel quite sorry for himself. He put on a bit of weight. And he started to get terrible pain in his back. He was assessed as ‘disabled’ and life got a bit easier with incapacity benefits and a disabled badge. He no longer felt bad about his life on benefits because his health wasn’t good and plenty of other people seemed to be living that way now anyway.

Life for Tony – until 2012 – revolved largely around Cash in the Attic, Homes under the Hammer, Pointless and occasionally Loose Women. Daytime TV took up the time he had earmarked for renovating an old Austin A40 that his father had left him. Tony was resigned to his life. When I would drop in to pick up ironing and so on, Tony largely kept himself to himself, staring at his somewhat large TV screen in a conservatory at the back of Eileen and Tony’s house. Eileen and Tony’s quite large house. Eileen and Tony’s massive, 4 or 5 bedroom house, with a conservatory and outbuilding. This large house, which was allocated when their 4 children were small, was in the centre of Didcot. It must have been worth over half a million pounds. But it was now used by two near pensioners, one of whom was being paid to watch TV all day.

The “bedroom tax” has been a greatly demonised policy. Penalising people for having bedrooms they don’t need was so obviously mean-spirited. And Tony was very angry when he and Eileen were effectively forced to move to a two-bedroom bungalow in another part of Didcot. The bungalow still has room for Tony’s cars, but it’s a fraction of the size of the old place. Eileen was secretly relieved. The local authority sold the house. For over half a million, I believe.

Next up came Tony’s work capability assessment. How demeaning. Tony had been paying in to the system for all those years. Now that his health wasn’t so good, clearly he was entitled to help from the state for his troubles. The assessment asked Tony what he could do, instead of what his problems were. Nobody had ever asked that before. Tony ended up getting a part-time taxi co-ordinating job. He’s lost a bit of weight. He doesn’t half moan about his work colleagues and how annoying the customers can be. He’s full of it in fact. You can’t actually stop him talking about his day. Eileen can’t believe it. Although he’ll never find anything nice to say about the bastard Tories who forced him out to work. He’s even started working on that car in his spare time.

Eileen has two grandchildren so far. They’re both in nearby schools. The schools were pretty dire historically. But in the past five years they have actually got better. Ofsted said that for the first time, the secondary school was “Good”. The family are pretty pleased with both kids’ progress. They didn’t understand much about what becoming an “academy” meant. But so far it all seems pretty good. Eileen didn’t think much of the visit they all had to make to a mosque. But she knows that the Tories don’t really think much of that kind of thing either. Not really.

Eileen doesn’t follow politics. But she’s aware that Labour doesn’t think the Tories can be trusted on the NHS. She knows that Labour is the party of the NHS. But she also knows that her mother didn’t exactly get great end-of-life care. It wasn’t Mid-Staffs bad. But it was fairly uncaring. Her mother seemed frightened to ring the bell to ask for help. The nurses weren’t very friendly. And that was when Labour was in power! She’s never heard the Tories say they want to privatise the NHS. But it doesn’t seem that different – better or worse – than it was under Labour. She’s not very happy about “people coming here” and using the system for free, mind.

Eileen’s aware that the Tories are supposed to be evil, self-serving and nasty. She does a lot of work in the local villages. Most of her employers are what you might call “middle class”. She’s always known people from different walks of life – her parents used to rent the spare room out to students, travelling work people, trainee doctors and so on. They loved having new visitors. People are just people. She hasn’t really met any “nasty” ones, no matter what their class or wealth. Most seem to be struggling with this life thing, one way or another. The idea of “evil”, “nasty”, “selfish” Tories, hell-bent on “smashing up” the NHS doesn’t seem to ring true somehow.

The other thing Eileen is aware of is Ed Miliband. What’s he like, eh? Did you see him trying to eat that bacon sandwich? What’s that tombstone he’s gone and made? Eileen knows a lot of people from different walks of life. Some of them are really dead posh. But she doesn’t know anyone who speaks like Ed Miliband. What the hell is he on about? I wouldn’t like to be his brother. Ha ha ha!!

So that’s Eileen. A not very likely 2015 Conservative voter. If you’d said to her she’d ever vote Tory, she wouldn’t have believed you. She lives in a smaller house. Her husband has had to get a job. But do you know? That’s probably right. It’s probably fair. And while he’d never admit it, Tony seems to be loving working again. Or at least gossiping while he is at work. He never watches Cash in the Attic now: hasn’t got the time. And Tony and Eileen are delighted that their grandchildren’s school is on the up. There even seem to be more jobs around for young people these days, which can’t be a bad thing.

Didcot Woman’s life has been completely transformed. And the lives of people like her up and down the country. They all have a sense of fair play and are far happier paying more of their way in life. Could these people have delivered the election to the Conservatives? I think so.

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Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas is an entrepreneur and writer

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