Being consistently on-message helped to win Tony Abbott the recent Australian election. That message balanced a tough approach to immigration and taxes (especially the carbon tax) with a more tender one about infrastructure and childcare. All in all, he is less a small state conservative than a social justice one, whose thinking has been shaped by his Catholic Christianity – though, as Tim Montgomerie reported at the time, “when he was health minister he did not ban or restrict abortion. Today he opposes gay marriage but his lesbian sister has campaigned for him and testified to his personal support for her.” Tim went on to highlight Abbott’s commitment to social justice: “Every year he raises funds for charities with his sports activities. He spends a week with aboriginal Australians, undertaking community work. He and his wife support a shelter for abused women.”
Anglosphere read-overs to Britain aren’t exact, but Abbott’s success is a useful prism through which to view Nicky Morgan’s apparent reservations about Lynton Crosby’s campaigning message, with its relentless focus on immigration and welfare. Or, as she put it, the Conservative message shouldn’t be “we’re against this, we’re anti that, we don’t like them, we don’t want them here, we don’t want them doing this…If we talk about what we hate all the time, we’re not talking about what we like and what we want to do to help people who want to do well. We never say ‘actually, we are on the side of these people, we want this to happen and we think this is great’.” Morgan is a Treasury Minister in the team of George Osborne, the Party’s most politically-focused Minister, and a rising force in her own right – and was speaking in a week in which another woman Tory MP has announced that she will stand down at the next election.
As Tim pointed out, Australia’s Prime Minister is “close to Mark Textor, the polling half of the Crosby-Textor agency”. Crosby, the other half and Abbott’s fellow-Australian, has brought to the Conservative operation the discipline, focus and consistency that helped to win the Liberals that election down under and was markedly missing here before his arrival. The centre-right in Britain has not yet produced senior campaigners of his quality (though we have high hopes of Matthew Elliott at Business for Britain, who played a significant part in the defeat of regional government and then AV). This is why this site backed Crosby’s appointment and has argued for him to have more control over Conservative campaigning. He isn’t solely responsible for the recent improvement in its effectiveness, but he must take much of the credit – evident this week, for example, in Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith blitzing Rachel Reeves’s planned offensive on welfare before her planes had got off the ground.
In opposition, the Tory leadership under-stressed controlling our borders and restricting welfare entitlement – two issues that are inextricably intertwined, and help to explain the decline in public support for a 1945 model of the welfare state. Pay-as-you-go welfare systems depend on social solidarity for public legitimacy, and that legitimacy gradually folds if voters feel no solidarity with other claimants – NHS tourists, families receiving child benefit in Warsaw or Bucharest, and welfare claimants who make no effort to learn English, for example. Time spent in opposition ruling out the expansion of Heathrow, coming out against nuclear power (on any realistic terms) and signing up to excessively tight carbon reduction targets would have been better spent pushing for change in the EU entitlement to free movement, or reform of benefit entitlements for recent arrivals who, by definition, have payed into the system even less than everyone else.
But although immigration and welfare control are necessary to any balanced Conservative campaign, it doesn’t follow that they are sufficient. The most obvious proof of this truth is grounded in political experience: every election in modern times has been fought primarily on the economy, and the next one will be no different. Voters also want the NHS to be safe in the hands of the politicians they elect, their taxes to be lower, their savings to be higher (though many rightly think that it’s scarcely worth saving at all), and their fuel and energy bills less onerous. Older ones may own property and have had good jobs in their time, but are worried that their children can’t afford to buy and will enjoy fewer opportunities. In the northern and midlands marginals that the Party must win next time round, the public sector is bigger and suspicion of the Tories more entrenched than in the south. The image of the Conservatives as “the party of the rich” is harder to shift. It is one that ethnic minority voters (consistently) and women (recently) are more likely to believe in than white English voters or men.
So Abbott’s balanced programme in Australia, with his parental leave policy targeted at women voters, or Stephen Harper’s in Canada, where the Conservatives win over 40 per cent of the ethnic minority vote (our figure was 16 per cent in 2010), turns out to have an application here. Or if these examples from abroad don’t persuade, try one a bit closer to home – and a woman to boot. Margaret Thatcher’s three successive election victories were won by her simultaneous appeal to new voters as well as core ones – to former Labour supporters who wanted to buy homes and shares, and benefit from rising prosperity. She was for something, not against everything. Her message wasn’t reducible to – as Morgan put it – “we’re against this, we’re anti that, we don’t like them, we don’t want them here, we don’t want them doing this”. The Treasury Minister has a point. The Conservatives won’t persuade uncommitted and younger voters that they’re not a party of the rich by simply banging on about immigration and welfare – or being the natural party of grumps and sourpusses.