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David Skelton is the Director of Renewal, a campaign organisation aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party.

“Conservatives have done more for the working man in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.” That was the view of an early Labour-Liberal MP on Disraeli’s 1874 administration. It reminds us that Conservatives have a tradition of social reform that goes back well over a century. Tory ministers would be right to argue that several of the reforms undertaken by the current government, such as changes to the income tax threshold and policies such as the “Pupil Premium”, belong to this Tory tradition.

There’s little doubt, however, that Conservatives need to go further to reanimate this tradition and show that they have distinctive policies aimed at tackling poverty. A recent poll, conducted for the former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Lord Ashcroft, showed that only 9 per cent of voters think that the Tories best understand low-paid public sector workers and only 14 per cent believe that it best understands low-paid private sector workers. Some 64 per cent believe that the Conservatives are the party of the rich, not ordinary people.

Conservatives need to carve out a unique approach to low pay and poverty in order to reverse this impression. Rather than being seen as the creature of big business and the wealthy, the party should be in a position where it is seen as looking after the interests of the cleaner, the shift worker and the checkout assistant. This will involve building on an impressive heritage of social reform in order to set out a distinctive conservative message of compassion about poverty and help for the low paid.

The Conservative social reforming tradition

Political realities and moral imperatives meant that, as soon as the suffrage was expanded, the Conservatives had to develop a compelling offer to low-income voters— initially, in contrast to the laissez-faire economics of the Liberals and later as a socially reforming non-socialist alternative to Labour. Conservatives rejected the class division that they thought dominated socialist thinking and the narrow view of “economic man” that shaped liberal political thought. Instead, they saw citizens as belonging to an organic community, with responsibilities and motivations beyond the purely economic. The predictions of the unlikely duo of Karl Marx and Lord Salisbury turned out to be unfounded. Marx argued that universal suffrage would be “a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the continent. Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class.” Salisbury, meanwhile, regarded universal suffrage as a disaster for Conservatism, arguing that, “the Conservative Party… have… dealt themselves a fatal blow by the course which they have adopted.”

However, it was the Conservatives who went on to dominate most of the century and a half following the 1867 Reform Act and Salisbury, as prime minister at various times between 1885 and 1902, was one of the main beneficiaries. A mixture of patriotism and social reform proved to be attractive to working-class voters. Friedrich Engels displayed his frustration when he said, “Once again the proletariat has discredited itself terribly… It cannot be denied that the increase of working class voters has brought the Tories more than their simple percentage increase; it has improved their relative position.”

The record of Benjamin Disraeli’s government on social reform was impressive. Slum clearance, the improvement of working-class housing, Public Health Acts, a Factory Act, the legalisation of picketing and laws that allowed workers to sue employers if a contract was broken all provided a firm basis for the nascent Tory tradition of social reform. (Keir Hardie would later praise Disraeli’s administration and an early Fabian Society paper referred to “Tory socialism”.)

This continued under Salisbury’s premiership, particularly where the improvement of working-class housing was concerned. The defection from the Liberals of Joseph Chamberlain added some social reforming zeal to the government and Lord Randolph Churchill offered a brief, but tantalising, glimpse of a radical Toryism, known as “Tory democracy”, which had social reform at its heart.

The governments of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain’s kept up this tradition of tackling poverty through social reform, introducing pensions and unemployment benefit. Postwar Conservative governments also have a proud record, consolidating the welfare state as a safety net, achieving full employment and successfully making housebuilding (including the construction of council houses) a Tory issue. Social reform was central to Harold Macmillan’s Toryism. For example, his tract The Middle Way, published in 1938, contained a proposal for a minimum wage, 59 years before one was eventually introduced. And by spreading the opportunity for home ownership and share ownership to the poorest, the Thatcher government in the 1980s continued this tradition of giving people a real stake in society.

The Conservatives’ mistake on the minimum wage

In hindsight, the approach to low pay taken by the Major government looks like a political and moral mistake. In the mid-1990s the Conservatives held out against the introduction of a minimum wage; it also abolished the wages councils that had been established under Churchill. This made the party look uncaring, mean and governed by dogma, and reinforced the perception that the party cared more about the rich and big business than it did about the poor. Its dire warnings about the impact of the minimum wage proved entirely unfounded and helped to compound the error. This created an image around the Tory approach to poverty that still lingers. It is possible, however, to construct a Conservative approach to tackling poverty based on the Tory tradition of social reform—poverty and low pay damage many of the institutions that conservatism most values.

Poverty undermines conservative institutions

Despite poverty reduction often being seen as a left-wing cause célèbre, the impact of poverty can be hugely detrimental to institutions that conservatives hold dear. The family unit, for example, can be seriously damaged by poverty; but also offers a potential route out of deprivation. Parents in low-paid work often have to juggle multiple jobs at antisocial hours, with the result that they are able to spend less time with their family. Poverty places considerable emotional pressure on families and relationships, leading to higher levels of family breakdown than elsewhere in society. Fortyone per cent of children in lone parent households are in the lowest 20 per cent of incomes, compared to 22 per cent of children in families with couples.

Poverty also has an impact on educational attainment, making the conservative ideals of aspiration and achievement much more difficult to realise if life chances are decided at birth. There is a marked difference between the educational performance of the poorest and the most affluent children. Children from the poorest fifth of families are over a year behind the richest children in terms of vocabulary development by the age of five. This gap continues to grow over time, with children eligible for free school meals half as likely to achieve five or more A*-C grades at GCSE as those who are not.

The poorest in society are also less likely to play the kind of active role in civil society that conservatives cherish. Electoral turnout amongst the poorest social group is the lowest of any social group—only around 50 per cent of “DE” voters voted in 2010 compared to over 70 per cent of middle-class voters. The “class gap” in political participation has grown considerably over past few decades.

The centre-left’s approach hasn’t worked

The Left should be lauded for its commitment to fighting poverty over recent decades, but its approach hasn’t been as successful as it could have been. Although progress was made during the Blair years, particularly among children and pensioners, other groups, such as poorer working-age adults without children, saw their incomes change very little.

While GDP growth between 2003 and 2008 was 11 per cent, median incomes barely increased at all. At the same time, levels of worklessness, benefit dependency and educational failure also remained high.

The left has focused too much on the surface problems of poverty and neglected to deal with its root causes. It has taken a one-dimensional approach to poverty, concentrating on income and ignoring other dimensions such as debt, housing, poor childcare and education facilities and worklessness. Inter-generational welfare dependency, worklessness, family breakdown and poor educational attainment were problems that tinkering with tax credits did little to address. At the same time, an approach that focused on benefits rather than getting people back into work didn’t do enough to raise real incomes. The centre-right shouldn’t repeat that mistake.

A centre-right approach to tackling poverty

This should focus on all of the factors that contribute to poverty— the cost of living, the housing crisis, worklessness, lack of educational attainment, poor quality childcare and welfare dependency. Welfare reform, despite being condemned by some antipoverty campaigners, is essential to ensuring that people are able to make the most of their potential and to tackling inter-generational benefit dependency at its roots. As well as ensuring that those who can work do work, welfare reform should also give greater assistance to the long term unemployed to help them get back into work.

Education reform is also integral to tackling the long-term roots of poverty. The statistics illustrating the rich-poor educational divide are stark and suggest that poor schooling is a factor in the entrenching of inter-generational poverty. Measures such as the pupil premium and the expansion of academies will help to address the educational divide (the transformation of education in London after Tony Blair’s reforms shows what can be done). But, on its own, schools reform is not going to tackle poor educational attainment or disengagement, which often spans several generations. Conservatives need to consider how childcare can be improved in poorer areas and how the introduction of a vocational stream in schools, designed in consultation with employers, can help to tackle disengagement. Policy makers should also ask how family members can be encouraged to play a central role in improving educational outcomes.

The rise in the cost of living and the squeeze on living standards since 2005 has had a particularly severe impact on the poor. The rising cost of energy, fuel, transport and housing makes a greater impression on the budgets of the poorest than the rich. That is why the decision to freeze fuel duty was so important and so widely applauded. But there is more to do to cushion the poorest from the rising cost of living. If affordable, fuel duty should continue to be frozen or be cut further, and measures should be taken to limit the impact of energy and utility price rises, including making sure that utilities don’t abuse their oligopoly status and scrapping the wasteful EU Renewable Energy Directive.

Housing is one of the most significant pressures on incomes and the housing shortage is one of the biggest single drivers of inequality. Government reforms to encourage house building are a step in the right direction, but it’s clear that more must be done to help the 1.8 million on the housing waiting list. Planning reform has a major role to play here, enabling development even on parts of the greenbelt when people who are directly affected (rather than local bureaucrats) don’t object. Conservatives should also tackle the practice of land banking, where developers hold on to land that has planning permission while they wait for prices to increase.

The centre-right should admit its mistakes

Creating a distinctive and compelling centre-right approach to poverty also means being honest about past mistakes, as well as successes. This is certainly the case with the minimum wage. Conservatives should look to strengthen it and to ensure that it’s enforced properly. There have only been a handful of cases in which the minimum wage has been successfully enforced after non-compliance in recent years. The fine for non-enforcement is £5,000—one tenth of the fine for fly tipping. The centre-right needs to look to increase real incomes, particularly those of the poor and in doing so build on the changes to income tax thresholds that have lifted the poorest out of tax altogether. The Government should consider ways of substantially increasing the minimum wage, while cushioning the effect on job creation by reforming taxes on employers.

Over recent years, the minimum wage has failed to keep up with the increase in the cost of living and the government is spending millions on tax credits to top up low wages. In such circumstances, increasing the minimum wage seems both right and genuinely conservative, since it would encourage work and reduce dependence on the state, as well as ensuring that the benefits of growth reach everybody.

Conservatives should also consider the impact of deindustrialisation and the chronic worklessness that now afflicts many former industrial communities. Norman Tebbit has argued that, “many of these communities were completely devastated, with people out of work turning to drugs and no real man’s work because all the jobs had gone”. The areas with the highest levels of worklessness are those areas which depended the most on heavy industry, and some of the men who’d worked down the pit or the steelworks didn’t work again. It’s important for the centre-right to take measures to encourage job creation. Welfare reform is a crucial part of this, but so are measures to encourage job creation in places that have been unemployment black spots for decades. Powers over planning and welfare should be devolved to the great northern cities to help them become engines of job creation.

Conservatives must also reconsider their approach to “regulation” and big business. People living on low incomes and tight budgets are hit particularly hard by increases in the cost of basic utilities and services. Conservatives should insist that price increases driven by the abuse of a dominant market position are unacceptable. The authentically conservative position is to stand up for the consumer against vested interests and monopolies.

Regulation is an important issue for many on the centre-right. They’re correct to argue that regulation should be set at a level where it doesn’t get in the way of businesses creating jobs. But the centre-right should also remember that for most people, and especially for the poorest, one man’s “regulation” is another man’s economic security. Here the centre-right needs to find a better balance between economic liberalism and the traditional conservative belief in family, stability and security.

There is a space for a conservative approach to tackling poverty. Government changes to education, welfare and the tax code provide a sound platform on which to build it. Such an approach would tackle the deeply ingrained root causes of poverty, as well looking to raise the real incomes of working people on low incomes. This would be both morally right and genuinely conservative.

This essay is a shortened version of a collection including contributions from AC Grayling, Leanne Wood, Roger Scruton and Rowan Williams, published in partnership between the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Prospect Magazine. To read other essays or download the full report, please click here.

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