The Conservatives will gather for an annual conference this weekend for the first time since the death of Margaret Thatcher. David Cameron will doubtless seek to honour her in his speech next Wednesday and yet, as irony has it, he will struggle to deliver a more Thatcherite speech this year than he did last. Now, Thatcher and Thatcherism mean things to different people. For some, she was a revolutionary libertarian without ever having quite known it. Others, more accurately, saw her radical initiatives (council house and share sales, trade union reform, privatisation) as a product of the “Victorian values” or “vigorous virtues” which helped to shape her. Others still point to her bond as well as her break with the Party’s traditions: large parts of the 1983 and 1987 manifestos have a Compassionate Conservative flavour – the hospital building programme, the child benefit rises, the higher school spending.
But whatever your view, one conclusion is unmissable. Mrs Thatcher (“Lady” came later) was an election winner, scooping three victories and two landslides in a row. She could not have done this without being a master builder of electoral coalitions – keeping hold of traditional Tory voters while successfully reaching out to new ones. There is no great mystery about who the latter are. Call them the C2s, Essex men, Reagan Democrats, alarm clock watchers, the squeezed middle, battlers, strivers, little guys or the voters of Bolton West, we all know who they are – what used to be called “the rising class”, before globalisation challenged that rise and austerity halted it. No election-winning modern centre-right leader in the Anglosphere – George W.Bush, John Howard, Stephen Harper, and most recently Tony Abbott – have made it to office without winning the support of those voters.
The reason why Cameron’s speech last year was truly Thatcherite – some seven years into his leadership, and thus rather late – was that it made an appeal which was both practical and moral. “Countries rise when they allow their people to rise,” he said. “For us Conservatives, this is not just an economic mission – it’s also a moral one. It’s not just about growth and GDP, it’s what’s always made our hearts beat faster – aspiration; people rising from the bottom to the top.” The leader who cannot quite shake off his Etonian education made a virtue of arguing that it’s the poorest children who benefit most from Michael Gove’s school reforms, and those trapped in worklessness who most need Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare programme. True, aspiration isn’t everything: as Greg Clark has said, most people are neither strivers nor shirkers. They just want a decent life for their families, neighbourhoods and friends.
And the stark truth for the Prime Minister is that the excellence of his speech will have completely passed them by. They stopped listening to politicians long ago. That they show little sign of being persuaded by Ed Miliband should be of no comfort. The Conservative Party should neither be cheered by its relative and recent progress in the polls, nor be made complacent by the Labour leader’s lurch to the left. The strategic situation for the Party is dire. It has lost Scotland altogether. It is in danger of losing the urban north. It has a relatively new problem with women voters, and an older one with ethnic minority voters – who will be one in five voters by 2050, and from whom Cameron gained a mere 16 per cent of the vote last time round. Furthermore, the very fact of coalition is creating a new problem for the Conservatives.
The left is uniting, as left-wing former Liberal Democrat voters drift towards Miliband, while the right is dividing, as Nigel Farage seeks to frame UKIP as “the Conservative Party you used to voted for” – pro-grammar schools, anti-wind farm, even more anti-same sex marriage. All this might not matter were the electoral battleground even. But it isn’t: very simply, the distribution of the vote leaves Cameron with far more work to do than Miliband. Meanwhile, party membership is now below Labour’s – as pressure from this site helped to establish. This touches the deepest Tory problem of all: we are fishing in a smaller electoral pool. Every Conservative activist should memorise a single statistic by heart. 30 per cent of voters say they’d never vote Labour. The corresponding figure for the Tory Party is 42 per cent. The best part of ten years on from the start of Cameron’s modernisation project, the Conservative brand problem seems to be as bad as ever. Soho modernisation, Easterhouse modernisation – nothing has made much of a difference.
I am not such a fool as to believe that this moral gap – as some voters see it – can be bridged within two fleeting years. It has opened up for many reasons: the estrangement of the party from younger voters, particularly if they’re women or ethnic minority members; the failure of four successive Tory leaders to win an election, and show what good Conservative Government can do; the dominance by the left of the commanding heights of the cultural establishment (the arts, the universities, the national broadcaster) and, yes, the emergence of a Wrong Right whose mission is not to win but entertain; not to appeal to the interests of new voters but pander to the instincts of old ones. The Fox Newsification of the Tory Party would bring it no more success than the same process has brought the Republicans. Turning the Conservative movement, in voters’ eyes, into the Good Right (as Tim Montgomerie puts it) will be a very long haul indeed.
So how to begin it? You must give your own answer. Mine is to start by agreeing with Greg Clark. What most people want is a home of their own, a decent job, and enough savings to live on when they retire. In the short-term, 2015 will be the usual meat, potatoes and two veg election – the economy, the NHS, tax, schools and crime (or, for those last two, substitute welfare and immigration). In the longer-term, the Conservatives must work to build a coalition that spans both its older base and younger voters – not to mention those striving ones in the midlands and northern marginals. There is no substitute for persuading both that the most durable electoral route to homes, jobs and savings for all is to vote Tory. Gordon Brown left a legacy of a million unemployed young people, as Lottie Dexter reminds us today on this site – not to mention a nation of housing has and has-nots, as Alex Morton writes, as home ownership fell.
Where’s the morality in that? Or in the construction of a cats-cradle of tax credits deliberately crafted to leave people marooned just above a notional poverty line. Or in the mass means-testing of pensions. But creating the conditions for homes, jobs and savings won’t be easy: in one sense, it won’t even be conservative, at least with a small c. Indeed, it will be anti-establishment, challenging the unjust settlement that is denying younger people the chance that older ones had to save – in other words, to buy a home. That means building more houses, and not just on brownfield sites. But if older people are going to find the value of their homes going up less rapidly than before, government will have a duty to encourage alternative means of saving – a practice that the effects of quantitative easing has made almost pointless. Not that the interests of young and old always clash. Both have an interest in breaking down the barriers to jobs that Dexter describes. Such an electoral coalition would be at least as broad as the Thatcher one was.