Over Easter, two surprising records were broken. First, the Conservatives were found to be 21 points ahead in two polls, the highest lead enjoyed by the party while in Government since 1983. And second, the latest series of Peter Kay’s Car Share was watched by more than 8m viewers and occupied the top three spots on the BBC i-player catch-up service, the first time ever for a comedy.
What is not properly appreciated is that these are both in fact testament to the same phenomenon.
Car share is a delight. It is a show for our times, drawing its charm from alternate sips of the quotidian, followed by irony, followed by pathos. The two main characters – almost past the ideal marrying age – are co-workers in a Manchester supermarket and are evidently falling in love but not managing to seal the deal.
They are also, to my mind, archetypes and emblematic of the fact that public opinion has congregated around a 15m strong caucus of quiet, decent, hard working people. Threresa May called them (somewhat awkwardly) “just about managing”. They unexpectedly voted for Brexit. In so far as they were ever Labour voters, they have deserted it in droves.
On current projections, they would deliver a 140 seat majority for Theresa May if there was an election. While her understanding of them (and that of her co-chief of staff Nick Timothy) may not be perfect, it is more instinctive than those who have to pour over polls and books by the excellent David Goodhart to get a feel for their fellow countrymen. Lynton Crosby gets them. Blair did initially and so, of course, did Thatcher.
We all should be able to find a little bit of us in Car Share. For my part, it reminds me of working in Boots warehouse in Woking after I left school.
The characters recall the BBC’s historic ability to conjure comedy by holding up a mirror which reflects everyday situations, like suburbia (Terry & June) or rag and bone men (Steptoe & Son). There is a pyscho fishmonger who smells and who they avoid; an angry cyclist who puts traffic confrontations on YouTube; a neighbour who refurbishes his motorbike by torchlight at night; and a musclebound trolley porter who Kayleigh, played by Sian Gibson, drools over. The boss, Dave Thompson, occasionally calls spouting management speak, but is never seen.
Car sharers are not terribly political. As they spend a lot of time in the car, one cannot help suspecting that pollsters struggle to find them either by telephone or online. They may have voted for Brexit, but are not defined by it. If asked, they would say “we should just get on with it,” and they would regard any attempt to overturn the referendum as absurd as – on the other end of the spectrum – Nigel Farage. They don’t like self-important, bossy types.
They listen to local radio stations for the retro music and not the news. They are more concerned about the NHS, education and transport than they are with modish issues like “gender neutrality”.
They don’t like being patronised. They work in the private sector and don’t claim benefits, so they are consequently net contributors to the Exchequer. They take overseas holidays and either own their own home or aspire to do so. When Peter Kay was shown the script for Car Share he recruited Sian Gibson – a foxy friend from his time at Salford University – from a call centre, where her stalled acting career meant she was working.
That is why “just about managing” is not a very good term to describe them. It implies anger. Car Share Conservatives would be a better expression. They prefer humour and do not see themselves as victims. They are deeply conscious though, that average earnings have hardly grown for a decade and that house prices have risen beyond a young family’s reach and fear that the next generation will be poorer than the last.
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Usually, political commentators like to draw on cultural references, but it is notable how they have largely ignored Car Share. Even the Daily Mail gave it an unenthusiastic review. Perhaps they have not seen it. Or maybe it is another example of how they are struggling to know the country outside Westminster. So here is a test for those in public life. Next time you are thinking of doing or saying something, ask yourself: “What would a car sharer think of it?”