this week ConservativeHome is dedicating Your Platform to a
different take on the
first 100 days of Cameron’s leadership. Iain works for the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute and was born and raised in South Shields.
The Tory revival in the polls since David
Cameron became leader has been edifying. Yet further progress will not be made
until the Cameron leadership addresses the elephant that has been sitting in the
living room since 1997. That elephant, so comfortable now it has taken to
wearing slippers and reading the paper, is the failure of the Tories to appeal
to the mass of the working class. The party appears to have written off large
areas of the country from its electoral calculus. Until it addresses the
problem, it will continue to struggle to get a clear lead in the polls while
handicapping its electoral chances.
A look at the numbers from ICM’s February
poll for the Guardian illustrates the extent of the problem. The Tories have
built up substantial leads over Labour among ABs, C1s and even C2s (43% to 29%,
37% to 28% and 45% to 39% respectively), but trail by a huge amount among DEs
(28% to 42%). Similarly, the Tories have leads in the Midlands and South (41%
to 35% and 41% to 30%) but continue to trail in the North (31% to 37%). Such a
divide has always existed, to be sure, but its existence is one of the main
reasons why the Tories have to gain a substantial lead in the polls even to
approach a working majority. The Labour northern/working-class vote gives them
a solid block of seats they can always rely on; even in 1983, when they polled
just 27% of the vote, they secured 209 seats.
But there is a huge opportunity here at
the moment. Labour’s support among the DEs has been crumbling. In 1997, they
won 61% of DE support. That number is down now to 42%, but it is the Liberal
Democrats who have been the beneficiaries more than the Tories. If the Tories
can put a significant dent in that number, then Labour’s foundations will be
shaken and the walls around their northern strongholds will begin to fall. It
should be the Tory ambition that David Milliband be nervous for his majority on
the next General Election night, not just Bob Marshall-Andrews.
NEXT IN SERIES: JOHN HAYES MP EXAMINES DAVID CAMERON’S SOCIAL JUSTICE RECORD.
We should have learned this lesson from
Labour long ago. In the mid-80s, when David Cameron was there, the Oxford
University student publication Tributary published an essay entitled, “Seeking
socialists up gravel drives.” I forget the author – it could well have been
Milliband himself – but the point of this proto-Blairism was that no demographic
group should be off-limits for Labour. The strategy was put into devastating
effect in the 1997 election. Labour slashed the Conservative lead among ABs
from 36 points to just 11. Safe southern seat after safe southern seat fell to
opposition parties. Those canvassers that had made the daunting trips up the
gravel drives found people willing to listen.
We must do the equivalent now and look
for Tories in northern council estates. Some may say that has been tried, but I
would argue that we have taken too paternalistic a view and assumed that by
concentrating on immigration we would appeal to the working class. This is
snobbery, pure and simple. One of the interesting features of the Guardian/ICM
poll was that the DE group differed very little in its view of which were the
most important issues for government to address from the ABs. Terrorism ranked
slightly more important than global warming, certainly, but the percentage of DE
voters concerned about the climate issue was statistically no different from the
percentage of ABs (about 30 percent).
Here we can learn another lesson from the
‘80s. Margaret Thatcher was probably the first non-wartime Tory leader to gain
significant support from the working class. She gained their support not by a
paternalistic approach to policy-making but by extending the benefits of her
economic policy to them. Privatisation, the defeat of the trade unions and the
sale of council houses gave them a stake in the economy. The Thatcherite
working class was made up of what John O’Sullivan calls “strivers,” those of
limited means who are determined to improve themselves. The first law of
conservative economics is that incentives matter. Strivers will be the first to
respond to incentives; it is the Tories’ task now to find the right ones to
appeal to them. That will entail going into the council estates of Sunderland,
Liverpool and Glasgow to identify potential converts. If we stick to our
“winnable” target seats we will never find them.
The Tories have never achieved Disraeli’s
dream of One Nation Conservatism. Policies that are aimed at winning back AB
voters won’t achieve it either. If David Cameron is truly a One Nation
Conservative, he will use the next 100 days of his leadership to chase out the
elephant, engage the working class and give David Milliband the shock of his
life. It’ll be worth it.
TOMORROW: JOHN HAYES MP WILL FOCUS ON SOCIAL JUSTICE. PETER FRANKLIN LOOKED AT DAVID CAMERON’S ENVIRONMENTALISM YESTERDAY.