Daniel Moylan represents the Queen’s Gate Ward on Kensington and Chelsea Council and was until recently Deputy Chairman of Transport for London.
A whole section of the electorate has been abandoned by the Labour Party and is ripe to be scooped up by UKIP. How will the new Prime Minister ensure that these voters are persuaded to vote Conservative instead?
Since the referendum, disappointed Remainers, some of them Conservatives, have characterised these Brexit-voting electors, many from provincial towns, as ill-educated, easily misled by false promises, gullibly susceptible to “lies” and only dubiously deserving of the benefits of universal suffrage. MPs are urged to ignore them, lawyers resort to the courts to rescue the nation from them, and businesses (and politicians) seek to subvert their choice by working to maintain our subjection to the juridical structures of the Single Market provided a compromise of some sort can be negotiated on the freedom of movement required of us by the EU for that doubtful privilege.
The Remainers’ plan appears to be to keep everything as unchanged as possible, at least as far as the Single Market goes, believing that some form of control of immigration from the EU (some “fudge”) will be enough to address the concerns of many Brexit-voting electors. After all, could we not see on the TV that, when asked about their reason for rejecting the EU, they almost universally said “immigration”?
But, quite apart from relying on achieving a greater concession from the EU than was available to David Cameron, the plan is flawed also by insufficient inquiry into what voters said when they had an opportunity to expand on that single word. They gave voice, not to crude xenophobia, but to practical concerns about pressures of population growth: the difficulty of finding school places, the long waits at A&E, the pressure on maternity wards, the lack of available housing at prices and rents people can afford. In some cases too there was complaint about pressure on wages (though we know this is limited and sectoral, since, overall, the economic evidence shows that immigration has not led to a general decline in incomes). When Jeremy Corbyn says that people were voting against the EU because of pressure on public services, he seems to have a point.
There is evidence, too, of a sense of frustration that complaining about these issues has often attracted patronising inattention and even accusations of racism, or even, if the complainant is black, of being a “racism enabler”. The opportunity to express legitimate concern has frequently been closed down.
As a party we need to look very closely at these people, first because they are our fellow countrymen and second because they are perfectly capable of being persuaded to support the Conservatives now that Labour has turned away from them to look for votes (if anywhere) amongst the idealistic young, metropolitan liberals and public sector union members.
But, while the Labour Party has lost them, they nonetheless have a real choice between us and UKIP. It is vitally important to the future of the Conservative Party that they are not lost to Farage’s successor. A Conservative Party that occupied a narrow centre ground between a “progressive” party of the left and a UKIP feeding on resentment at the betrayal of the referendum would have dim prospects.
There will be Conservatives who are instinctively averse to competing with UKIP for votes, given the numerous unpleasant and un-Tory elements of UKIP’s message. But it is absolutely not necessary to get down in the mud with UKIP in order to deny it votes, for the simple reason that UKIP thrives on the failure of the authorities to listen to hard-working families and to address their concerns, whereas Conservatives can win them over by doing exactly that: by delivering an agenda of social and economic improvements that respond to what people tell us.
How to manage that?
First, May must seize the opportunity now to develop a regional policy that takes account of more than the remote fringes of the country and the Northern Powerhouse (important though those areas are). Since the 1980s we have effectively outsourced our regional policy to the EU and we have therefore forgotten the in-between areas: the places that are neither a great metropolis nor a distant island or coastline. We have stopped asking ourselves what towns like Bradford, Southampton and Norwich have to offer, both to the national economy and to their own residents, too many of whom have experienced stagnant wages, no social progress, little local opportunity and who foresee a deteriorating prospect for their children. They are realistic enough to know that politicians will not solve all their problems, but they want to be listened to; they want a say in what government does for their towns.
Listening is therefore a crucial first step for the new Conservative government. Are MPs in areas adjacent to these towns willing to become advocates for their needs? What can the (normally few) local Tory councillors do to make their voice heard? And will somebody at the centre be listening? What commitment to engagement with this sector of the population will the new Prime Minster make?
And after listening, there must be action. If we are to be shown as capable of listening, we need to respect the democratic choice of the population by delivering a real Brexit – and soon. That will include, but not be limited to, a fair immigration system that does not privilege EU citizens and takes accounts of the skills the country needs.
On social provision, even at this preliminary stage we know that we need to address the pressures arising from population growth (much of it in fact led by natural fertility and greater longevity rather than by immigration). We need to build more school places – and we should not be too purist about insisting these are free schools: where they can do the job, highly rated local authority schools should be expanded, too.
Although the NHS is becoming more and more like the Premier League, with the money thrown at it taken by the players, rather than finding its way through to services, there should be a way of reforming primary care so that everyone has decent and rapid access to a GP or to A&E as needed. Maybe Blair’s system of targets served a role of sorts after all.
And on housing – well, we all know there is a shortage of housing and the referendum shows that we really cannot longer postpone doing something effective about it. If we base this unashamedly on a strong Conservative message about home-ownership and a thorough reconsideration of the now almost wholly broken planning system for new housing, this need not require huge amounts of public money.
These are issues of general applicability but in each locality there will be particular needs, sometimes quite modest, for infrastructure investment, for support for employment-generating investment and the like that local people will understand much better than anyone else. Stephen Crabb, during his bid for the leadership, called for a new infrastructure funding pot. May should think how to take it up. It should be a challenge pot, à la Heseltine, to which communities can bid, not a top-down flagship for government to boast of. As to its funding, leading politicians are now reconsidering whether HS2 offers anything like the value its price-tag requires and whether the same sum, spent judiciously on smaller scale schemes throughout the country, could not offer a far better return.
It would be a catastrophe for our party if we followed those who can only sneer at provincial attitudes and who have expressed an insulting contempt for electors who have as much right to be heard as any other. That is the life-blood of UKIP’s appeal. Rather we need now in Theresa May a leader who will bring them into the Tory fold through a policy of engagement and delivery.