The band Man and the Echo’s song A Capable Man describes a self-employed man who works hard for his pay. He is a libertarian, he believes in individual freedom, he would be untroubled if his son was gay, or came home with someone of another race. Hearing the song for the first time this evening on BBC Radio 6 and unable to find the lyrics online, it is hard to know whether it is intended to be a parody of a mindset, or an attempt at a faithful reflection. Either way, “a capable man” recognizes the re-emergence of “Essex Man” from the days of Margaret Thatcher.
Essex Man was the self-made blue collar worker, he was working class and he voted Tory because the Conservative Party more closely reflected his attitudes than did the Labour Party, which was supposed to represent working-class interests.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Labour Party remained strong in areas where there had been a tradition of heavy industry, places like Yorkshire, Lancashire and South Wales. Working class voters were solidly Labour in the counties which had seen pits and mills, Labour did not command that loyalty further south and further east. Margaret Thatcher’s great success was to garner the votes of millions of working-class people, particularly around London and the south-east. “Essex Man” was the brash, Sun-reading, blue collar man who was at the backbone of the Thatcherite revolution. The success of Tony Blair was in re-capturing those working class votes, in winning back seats in London and the south-east. Blair managed to create an image of the Labour Party that suggested that it was a party that reflected the views of tradesmen and small firm employees, the capable men of Man and the Echo’s lyrics.
The Capable Man of the song declares that he voted “leave,” a similar preference would have been expressed by Essex Man thirty years earlier. The working-class Brexit vote was a swing back to the right by the electors who had been key to the Tory successes of the 1980s. In 2019, with working class votes moving to the Conservatives and with middle class voters being firmly in the “remain” camp, support for Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of socialism has rapidly ebbed away: Corbyn’s satisfaction rating has dropped to just 16%, his capacity to shape the political life has been steadily eroded. Parody or not, A Capable Man is a shrewd insight into the current stare of British politics.