Tim's article this morning is brilliant, but I think his argument can be extended. He rightly highlights the finding in Lord Ashcroft's opinion polls that, like it or not, the Conservatives are still hamstrung by the popular belief that "the Conservative Party is for the rich, not for people like them." As he says, that is why robust welfare and education reforms are so vital for the party. For the 2020 Tax Commission project we are looking at how tax reform can fit into that picture as well.
Free schools are going well enough, despite some missteps, that previously implacable Labour opposition is starting to subside. Welfare reform is rightly popular. While the Government could go further, this video is a reminder for anyone who has forgotten the scale of the problems they are addressing.
Their proposition to the less fortunate is the most important part of winning the moral high ground, and addressing the perception that the Conservatives are the party of and for the priviliged. But some thought also needs to go into the other side of the equation. What about how they are seen to treat the rich?
At the moment, the political strategy seems to be essentially defensive. The party tries to accept any measure, like the 50p rate, that might allow Labour to start drawing dividing lines between its class warriors and Tory toffs. Even the wildly popular proposal to cut Inheritance Tax was sacrificed on that altar, though the public think the tax is deeply unfair.
There are two problems with that approach. First it means accepting policies that will be economically disastrous, such a disaster that they aren't in the interests of the poorest. People might want the rich to pay their share but do they want to pay more in order to inflict a higher rate on high earners, if the 50p rate loses money? Second it accepts the Labour advantage on this issue, even in the long run, and is limited to minimising the damage to Conservative fortunes.
I wrote about one way that the Conservatives might move forward on this issue before the election: Attack crony capitalism. Start to aggresively draw the distinction between people doing well by creating value and rent seekers. With so many bailouts and the recent final report on the MG Rover fiasco there are plenty of opportunities around to elaborate on that theme. Interventions in the economy from Regional Development Agencies to feed-in tariffs have produced plenty of opportunities for people to make a lot of money out of lobbying for grants and subsidies, instead of catering to consumer demand.
Suppose the Conservative response to the 50p rate hadn't been to accept it, but instead to say: "We don't think it is right or sensible that someone who works hard, and builds a business that employs thousands and provides a valuable services is treated the same as someone who has profited at the expense of the rest of us." That way defending against Labour attempts to paint the Conservatives as the party of the rich wouldn't mean accepting disastrous policy mistakes, but starting a fightback against the slide towards an economy where political favour counts for more than productive efficiency.