Nick Faith is Director of Communications at Policy Exchange.
Earlier today, Mark Wallace asked a very good question: What are the Conservatives doing to win in 2030? The answer, as far as I can see, is not a huge amount. The focus, understandably, is on the impending general election which will be fought along the lines of why it would be a mistake to hand the keys back to the guys who crashed the car.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Ed Miliband’s popularity ratings are still low and Labour still trails the Conservatives on the key polling indicator – economic competency. Focusing a campaign on a predominantly negative set of messages – bringing down the deficit, reducing immigration, ending welfare dependency, renegotiating a better deal with Europe – might be a recipe for an election victory. What’s more, these are all ‘wedge’ issues meaning that they create clear dividing lines with Labour’s policies. Will they be enough to convince people up and down the country that the Conservatives are ready to lead a majority government come May 2015? Maybe. Maybe not.
However, winning the next election and broadening the appeal of the party are two very distinct objectives. As David Skelton, my former colleague and founder of the campaign group Renewal, has been saying until he’s (metaphorically and literally) blue in the face, the party is not doing enough to reach out to a whole range of voters –working class men and women who feel let down by Labour, people living in town and cities outside the South East and ethnic minority communities who have distinct social, economic and cultural traits yet share one thing in common – they don’t tend to vote Conservative (an upcoming piece of work by Policy Exchange’s new BME research unit will be exploring the changing demographics of Britain in a lot more detail).
The issue of broadening the appeal of the party is partly one of policy. Deficit reduction and the pain that has come with difficult but necessary cuts to public spending is just one half of the story. The public understands this. Yet it would be an error not to set out the purpose of deficit reduction. Of course it is necessary to end our addiction to debt and balance the country’s books. But there needs to be a more positive vision which explains what a future Conservative government would do to improve peoples’ lives.
For example, the Chancellor could stand up at the Budget and announce that as a result of getting the economy back on track, he is now in a position to return Lloyds to the private sector, by giving everyone a risk free stake in the remaining shares. There are very few policies that cut through to the electorate but I wager creating a new generation of shareholders might just be one of them.
However, in the long term the party needs to focus on another ‘P’ – ‘people’. Parliament itself remains one of the most unrepresentative institutions in terms of social background. Some 35 per cent of MPs fee paying schools, compared to 7 per cent of the population. Only 25 MPs come from backgrounds as manual workers, compared to 63 in 1992. Research by YouGov for Policy Exchange in 2012 showed that if the Conservative Party adopted more working class candidates that would broaden its appeal nationally.
The same is true of women and ethnic minority candidates. Finding local candidates from different backgrounds, especially in former industrial towns in the north where voting Conservatives is becoming counter cultural, is not easy but it is absolutely necessary if the party is going to stand a chance of winning sustainable majorities in the future.
If the party is going to govern alone it has to focus on building up networks in key marginal seats.
At the same time it must also target a ward or two in a safe Labour seat. At the moment there is not a single Conservative councillor in Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle. The long term focus must be on moving from 3rd to 2nd place in some of our northern towns and cities. That’s why getting knocked into 3rd by UKIP in Wythenshawe was actually a bigger problem than some senior Conservatives would have you believe. The party needs strong local bases in order for this to happen.
Establishing these networks, attracting a broader set of people to join the party alongside a clear and coherent vision for the future of Britain are what’s needed to help the Conservatives win a majority in 2030.