By Tim Montgomerie
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Yesterday evening ConservativeHome held an event to discuss how the Conservatives might win the next election. The speakers were Employment Minister Chris Grayling, YouGov CEO and ConHome columnist Stephan Shakespeare and The TaxPayers' Alliance's Matthew Elliott. I'll write up the contributions from Stephan and Matthew over the next two days but, today, here's a review of Chris Grayling's contribution.
He began by saying that the aim must be a majority Tory government and that "we should do everything we can to achieve that goal". He then went on to set out five thoughts:
- First, he said, everyone in the Party needs to keep a level head: "We are two years into a five year parliament. We are in the middle of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s. We are taking tougher financial decisions here than any Government in modern times. We’ve had a poor, but not disastrous set of local election results. But we are still above 30% in the polls." We don't, he continued, need to win an election today but in 2015.
- Second more needed to be done to secure the core Tory vote. He suggested Bill Clinton as a, perhaps, surprising role model. "Clinton," Grayling said, "recognised very early on in his career that you can’t win an election without your core vote. So he began by reassuring the labor unions that he was one of them, won their confidence, and then built his message of change upon that confidence."
- Third talk of the centre ground needed to be rooted in a greater understanding of the striving classes: "I had one of those real lightbulb moments when I read the research that Lord Ashcroft carried out a couple of weeks ago. What we believe to be the centre may not be the centre to a voter in a former council house on an estate in Skelmersdale. Certainly the perspectives on life that I have found canvassing the streets of South Liverpool are very different to those of young professionals in Epsom and Ewell. We really need to understand what the centre ground really means today, and particularly what the centre ground means to voters in the front line of our key marginals. Because the next election will be won and lost on the streets of Skelmersdale and towns like it."
- Fourth we needed to talk about the practical concerns of voters rather than abstract ideas: "It’s much easier to explain to a voter that we are unhappy with what the EU is doing because, for example, it wants us to allow people to come here and settle and be able to access our benefit system without the safeguards that we have in place today. That’s something everyone can understand."
- Fifth, focus on jobs as a breakthrough issue: "I know I am biased as employment minister – but I think that jobs and unemployment – and the enterprise culture that we need to create jobs – will be a key challenge in the next few years. It’s already a top priority for us. And I am pushing a simple mantra – particularly in Brussels. If a plan or a policy means fewer jobs in businesses in Britain or in Europe we should not do it. Nothing is more important than making sure that our fellow citizens, and particularly the younger generation, have a decent and satisfying future in a real job."
During the Question and Answer period Mr Grayling reflected on last December's veto of the EU Treaty. Support for the party surged, he noted, amongst newspapers and the public – reaching 40% in opinion polls. Cameron, he said, needed to find a handful of similar such moments in the remainder of the parliament to ensure that he gets a lock on traditional Tory supporters. Mr Grayling said that Mr Cameron's recent interview with the Daily Mail showed that the Prime Minister understood this. Yesterday's strong statements by the PM on prisoner voting and the Financial Transaction Tax (see today's frontpage newslinks) are, perhaps, what Mr Grayling has in mind.
The danger is that it may be too late and appear inauthentic from Cameron. Successful leaders – like Bill Clinton, John Howard and Boris Johnson – lock up their base vote before they start venturing into new electoral territory. Since 1997 every new Tory leader has reached out before they had secured their base. Think of the pattern of Hague's leadership, in particular, where a period of baseball-capped outreach was followed by a period that the media inevitably portrayed as a 'lurch to the right'. It might be that Ed Miliband has got it the right way round. He has started off with a very solid left-wing base and has greater latitude from that base to woo floating voters.
The other great insight of Chris Grayling is the observation that the centre ground for voters in places like Skelmersdale is very different from, say, Surrey. The recent Policy Exchange report on northern voters proved very clearly that so-called right-wing positions on fuel and energy taxation as well as immigration and human rights laws were very popular with voters. If the Conservative Party can combine strong positions on these heartland issues with a commitment to job creation and protection of the NHS it is still possible that we can dominate the "centre ground" and win the next election.
I certainly found Mr Grayling's five point plan a lot more reassuring than the plan from Conservative HQ that Paul Goodman wrote about yesterday.