Mike Freer is MP for Finchley and Golders Green.
The Conservative Party Chairman has announced the launch of a bursary scheme to help candidates from poorer backgrounds fight elections. This is an admirable move, but to position themselves as the party of workers Conservatives must do more to display their diversity.
Despite cutting taxes for working families, increasing the minimum wage, boosting jobs, expanding childcare and turbo-charging education as a ladder to success, Conservatives are still viewed as espousing self-interest, greed and just looking out for the well-off. And we only have ourselves to blame. We have allowed Labour to position themselves as the sole representative of those for whom poverty is a reality, and they have taken ownership of the debate. We allow Labour MPs with privileged and comfortable upbringings and no real experience of hardship to go unchallenged when they rail against Conservatives for being out of touch and detached from working families.
Jeremy Corbyn, who has modelled a 30-year career around espousing this argument, went to an independent prep school, then a grammar school. His childhood home was a manor house – a background that is a far cry from the backgrounds and upbringings of many Conservative MPs. For many of us, hardship and struggling to make ends meet is not an abstract concept, but real life – our upbringing.
Whenever anyone from the Conservative Party talks about ‘representing working people’, it is more often than not greeted with mirth and sneering. Labour politicians and the commentariat both like to believe and/or portray Conservatives as toffs who went to public school and then Oxford or Cambridge, but for very many Conservative politicians and members this is simply inapplicable. The last election brought home to me how the Conservative Party needs to understand the backgrounds of its MPs and utilise more frequently those from ordinary backgrounds.
Last May, my Labour opponent, a very capable candidate, was quoted in a local paper as saying that her time at Harvard taught her to change the world. I suppose if you are raised in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in London, go to one of the most expensive private girls’ schools, then Cambridge and Harvard to study law before becoming a barrister that may be true. For me and for many Conservatives our views on how to change the world are shaped by real life, not the lecture halls of the world’s elite universities.
I was taught to change the world by my upbringing. Like many Conservative MPs, I was the first in my family to go to University after being lucky enough to go to my local grammar school in north Manchester. The first house I remember was a terraced house, with no heating and no bathroom, just an outside toilet - more Coronation Street than Harvard! My school uniform cost my parents a month’s salary and I remember them missing holidays to pay for it, in addition to working overtime to ensure I didn’t go short.
So when my Labour opponent talked about poverty, as Corbyn does now, it was as a concept. Poverty wasn’t a concept for me, it was my childhood. That’s why I know the importance of taking the lowest paid out of tax altogether. Having parents depending on overtime to pay the bills means I know why making work pay is important. Rewarding work, encouraging thrift, and making sure that aspiration is not a dirty word is why I’m a Conservative, and they are at the heart of the party’s values. It is why we are the true representatives of working families.
Yet we need to do more to convey that our reforms are not just because they are the right thing to do, but to show that we know, from our own experiences, why increasing take home pay (by increasing the national minimum wage or by cutting tax) makes a difference. Yes, many of my Parliamentary colleagues are more than comfortably off, but many of the newest appointments aren’t. Many of our Ministers and MPs from 2010 and 2015 had ‘blue collar’ upbringings, state educated (comprehensives and grammar) and non-Oxbridge (if university educated at all). Anna Soubry, Jane Ellison, Justin Tomlinson, Priti Patel and Marcus Jones, to name a handful, all fit the bill. So let’s bring forward those with diverse backgrounds so we can argue about jobs and aspiration from a position of experience and authenticity. Let’s park our tanks well and truly on Labour’s lawn.
The excellent initiative from Lord Feldman to provide bursaries to candidates from poorer backgrounds is welcome, but it will take a few elections to bear fruit. Despite two elections – 2005 and 2010 – and great strides forward, Cameron’s changes to recruit more women, gay and BME candidates are still a work in progress. In the meantime, decision makers in the party should deploy MPs from ‘ordinary backgrounds’ as much as possible to accurately display our diversity. The Conservative Party must fill the vacuum that Labour and the Unions have created and reassert itself as the unassailable representatives of Britain’s workers.