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”.
David Cameron’s priorities were often at odds with the mass of lower middle class voters in provincial England, but he was bang on with one thing: family-friendly policies. His publicly-aired concerns about the sexualisation of childhood, childhood obesity and the dangers for children on the web were in complete harmony with the public.
Theresa May’s Government doesn’t self-define itself as “family friendly” in the same way. Not only is the Government swamped by Brexit negotiations and a possible referendum in Scotland but, more importantly, May doesn’t like Government-by-megaphone. For her, either something is important enough to spend money on, or to warrant new legislation, or it isn’t.
But May’s Government has been quietly impressive in the area. In the Budget, Philip Hammond confirmed millions of families will be able to secure tax-free childcare, and he pledged funding for school sport won’t be affected by lower than forecast tax revenues from the sugar tax. At the start of the year, May made a high-profile speech on mental health, promising every secondary school mental health training. And, perhaps most importantly, at the end of last month the Government announced the beginning of a new internet safety strategy in conjunction with children’s charities, sector specialists and businesses.
Each policy has merit, but the Government won’t realise political benefit from them if they don’t fit them within a compelling overall narrative in the way that Cameron (with Steve Hilton) did. As I’ve suggested before, May should put aside her aversion to Government communications and endorse such an approach from Government. There is much the Government can achieve – politically and in reality – through the sorts of campaigns she is uncomfortable with.
Much of Westminster has derided May’s focus on the lower-middle class because they have focused on the lack of money available. The standard argument is that it’s too expensive to have major tax and spending policies for people who are large in number and further up the income distribution. This analysis is wrong, because it ignores the power of “cultural” policies – which move people just as much as self-interest. That’s true of things like tough crime policies, or restricting “health tourism”, but it’s also true for family policy.
So while it’s obviously true that getting major, expensive things right like social care, the NHS, and – yes – tax are vital to make people feel their family is supported, so are signals sent by Government. Grammar schools are a good example. What else could the Government think about in this area?
Childcare for professional mothers is not the answer, but placing nurseries in primary schools is very popular. Tougher school discipline – so that parents don’t see their kids’ lives disrupted – is also hugely supported. However, perhaps the most powerful thing the Government could do is to look at ways to increase sentencing for child abuse and neglect. People are rightly shocked at the extraordinarily short sentences people receive for the appalling treatment of children. The point of these is not only that they are helpful and right, but also that they send a message to families: one May should consider in the next stage of her domestic policy agenda.