The JAMs: Who Are Theresa May's New Target Voters?

Theresa May
Theresa May outside number 10 Downing Street, London, July 13. Peter Nicholls/File Photo/Reuters

If you work in Whitehall, the area of London where Britain's civil service enacts the will of its elected leaders, you've likely had to become very familiar with a new acronym: the JAMs—a new buzzword that denotes the "just about managing" voters that Prime Minister Theresa May says she wants to help.

"If you're from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realize," May said in her first statement as Prime Minister. "If you're one of those families, if you're just managing, I want to address you directly." Now, her government is said to be looking for policies to help these "just managing" voters it can insert into its 'autumn statement' budget update on Wednesday.

So who are the JAMs? Those who work in government sometimes complain that it is at best a loosely defined concept. But the Resolution Foundation, an influential labor market think tank, believes the term could reasonably apply to about six million families on middle to low incomes, mostly in work, and yet still for the main part earning less than £21,000 ($26,200) a year.

The autumn statement, which is to mark the first tranche of new economic policy from May's administration, would test the level of her commitment to these voters.

The Resolution Foundation says one way for May and her chancellor Philip Hammond to make good on their promises would be reversing or stopping some of the welfare cuts imposed by Hammond's predecessor George Osborne. "If you look at the policies she's inherited," says David Finch, the Resolution Foundation's senior economic analyst, "They're set to take £12 billion [$14.9 billion] out of low-income families."

Suggestions for policies that May could reverse include Osborne's four-year freeze on working-age benefits increases and a planned reduction in the amount that claimants are allowed to earn before they see cuts in their Universal Credit welfare. In the longer term, says Finch, helping the JAMs will mean tackling the U.K.'s fiendishly low productivity.

So if helping them could mean politically tricky policy reversals, why target these voters–and would it pay off?

In some ways, speaking to people who think of themselves as "just managing" is political genius. In the wake of the U.K.'s Brexit vote, there's a growing sense that politicians have ignored those who have been poorly served by economic growth in recent years. Besides, who doesn't think they're only just about managing?

And, with the opposition Labour party flatlining in the polls and largely absent from the press under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, May, like Cameron before her, sees an opportunity to peel off some more moderate working-class voters from that party. "I do worry about that," says Alan Johnson, a Labour MP who served as a cabinet minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, "it's fertile territory, the inequalities that people feel now."

But, says Johnson, he believes and hopes that May's ministrations to these economically disadvantaged groups are "just words." Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, says he's inclined to agree, and that Tory prime ministers down the ages have tried similar tactics: "Without being unduly cynical about it, we hear this every time," he says.

Wednesday's statement would be the first test of May's commitment to the JAMs, but it won't be the last–and as Brexit looms closer into view, she'll have plenty more to tackle. But with Labour weak and the political spectrum in flux, it could be she'll pull off a realignment.