James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Margaret Thatcher was successful partly because she was a conviction politician with ideological clarity. But more important was her instinctive grasp for the English population – particularly for the affluent working class and lower middle class families outside of London. These were the people that put her in office and kept her there.
Facing down the unions, cutting personal taxes, liberalising the economy, extending home ownership, a hard line on crime and security, standing up to the “loony left” – all were things that working class and lower middle class voters wanted to see. Thatcher wasn’t a lonely revolutionary converting the population to Hayek; she was a politician that, for several years, was completely in touch with the values and aspirations of provincial English families.
Much is made of the “Thatcherite” credentials of various Tory politicians – usually those that are eurosceptic, pro-American and in favour of a small state. These were undeniably her instincts. But Tory politicians are rarely compared to Thatcher for their insight into these hard-working families and for their ability to secure their votes. This surely misses the point about Thatcher’s appeal – and indeed the historic electoral attractiveness of the Conservative Party.
For this reason, Theresa May is emerging as an heir to Thatcher. True, May doesn’t share all of Thatcher’s instincts (on Europe, most obviously) – and some of her conference speech would no doubt have made Thatcher wince. But she is demonstrating the same natural ability to speak to ordinary families across provincial England that Thatcher had. Like Thatcher. May is creating a governing agenda that fuses economic and financial policies to boost those areas that need it, while projecting values designed to appeal to these voters’ hearts.
Her conference speech was ultimately about positioning and was light on detail, as leaders’ speeches usually are. But the positioning was clear. She unashamedly pitched for the provincial English vote. She defended those that voted against the EU, those that hold simple patriotic beliefs and that believe in border control and tough crime policies. Furthermore, she pledged an industrial strategy to boost those parts of the country that need it, fairer taxes and what she called “workers’ rights”.
Last week I wrote that Theresa May’s goal must be the destruction of the Labour Party by complete domination of the political mainstream. Her conference speech was just one speech, but it was a solid start to meet that objective. It was a speech for the same sort of people that voted Thatcher, but updated to the political, social and economic realities of 2016.
Executing this agenda in office will be hard, of course. The economic policies she set out will be the hardest of all. Governments across the developed world have struggled to turn around those areas that have suffered industrial decline. It might well be that, if she’s serious about an agenda for ordinary people, she turns increasingly towards the politics of culture, rather than economics. This can be devastatingly effective – particularly against opponents like Corbyn – but it won’t look like David Cameron’s sunny optimism.