James Frayne is Director of Policy and Strategy at Policy Exchange and author of Meet the People, a guide to public opinion.
For most of the last two decades, and certainly during the Blair era, the Conservatives were playing catch up on campaigning and communications. Things have been turned on their head.
The long Tory campaign ahead of the 2015 election – spearheaded by George Osborne’s increasingly consumer friendly budgets and finished by a competent and focused formal campaign – condemned Labour to heavy defeat.
However, while campaign competence has been established to great effect, few senior party strategists would claim that the Conservatives have secured the long term loyalty of key swing voters. Furthermore, the Party is still associated by many voters as being primarily on the side of those at the top – of the rich and businesses.
Labour’s problem is the opposite and more serious electorally – they are seen primarily as being on the side of those on low pay or benefits and on the side of trade unionists. This helped doom them to defeat. However, the Conservatives still need to address these concerns as they seek to build on their majority.
That widely shared perception of being the party of business and the rich will not be dealt with by suddenly becoming primarily the party for the poorest. Rather, the party must ensure that it speaks for the majority of the electorate.
Above all, the Conservatives need to consider the interests of the C1/C2 families of provincial England.
Neither rich, nor poor, these families are the Just About Managing classes – and they make up nearly half the population and more than half the electorate of the vast majority of the permanent battleground seats that the party needs to win to secure a bigger, workable majority next time.
The Conservatives’ long election campaign certainly addressed these families’ concerns better than the Labour Party did. Welfare reform, a strong economy and a comparatively low tax message all helped at the end.
However, it was a long time coming and, despite the obvious importance of C1/C2 voters to the Party’s election win, it is not clear that their interests truly run through the DNA of the Party. The Party still instinctively reaches rhetorically towards helping those at the top (i.e. businesses) and bottom.
If the Conservatives want to extend their majority and keep Labour out for a generation, they need to think about the Just About Managing classes first.
Policy Exchange has just released a major opinion research project looking at the permanent electoral battleground of provincial England – and the stated values and policy priorities of the C1/C2 families that sit within it. The research makes it clear that, while the Conservatives secured far more of their votes in 2015, C1/C2 voters feel unrepresented by the main political parties and they are open-minded politically.
They voted for Labour in significant numbers under Tony Blair and they could do so again. So what are their values and policy priorities and how should the Conservatives respond?
Paul Goodman has set out the direction of travel on this website with his concept of a Conservatism for Bolton West. Our research confirms the sense of this approach. The personal values of these C1/C2 families are, above all, family and fairness. These values colour their entire approach to politics and they dictate their policy priorities.
This means these voters want an active, practical approach from Government that helps improve their everyday lives. But they also want to see the Government create a fairer system where hard work and playing by the rules is rewarded and the opposite punished.
For example, they want to see the Government take an active role to keep down the cost of living. This means doing what they can to reduce energy bills, keeping down the cost of car ownership and driving (which is far more important to them than anything that touches on public transport – which is much less of an issue in provincial England), and keeping taxes as low as possible.
They also want the Government to help their families by improving school discipline and childcare and, inevitably, boosting the NHS – for example by making it easier to see GPs out of hours.
Regarding fairness, they want to see human rights laws amended so that it is harder to abuse them. They also want to see a crackdown on health tourism and further welfare reform.
Following such an approach would create a practical approach to politics but it should not be mistaken for an approach that either lacks radicalism or ambition. Reducing the cost of living by taking action on bills and taxes, for example, or improving school discipline and childcare, will require great political will and real creativity.
These things are easy to write in a blog, but hugely challenging to actually deliver in Government. Developing an approach that appeals to C1/C2 voters and genuinely helps them in their everyday lives will require substantial change within the Party.