Owen Jones, author of "Chavs: The Demonization of the Working-Class", is in no doubt as to who is to blame for the current condition of Britain’s working-class: Thatcher. Whilst Jones, a member of Britain’s contemporary socialist intelligentsia, may find himself at odds with many readers of this site (and indeed many working-class Britons who benefited from such policies as the “right to buy”), voting figures continue to show that even if this is not the reality, it is the broadly held perception. This is an issue for a Conservative Party that has struggled to move past the legacy of the 1980s as much as the socialist movement. However, as the Conservatives must improve their performance in working-class communities (especially those in the North West) if they are to win an outright majority at the next election, what can they learn from Jones’ book about how to paint the working-class bits of the map blue in 2015?
Paradoxically, to move past Thatcher we must revert to a 1980s view of the working-class and not be afraid to make a distinction between the “deserving and undeserving poor". This distinction – recognised by working-class Britons as much as anybody else – underpins a pragmatic engagement with the working-class voters the Conservative Party needs. Once Conservatives acknowledge this distinction, they will be in a much better place to engage the hard-working but low-paid Britons who most need a break. For example, whilst the Conservatives must demonstrate their compassion (and not let the Liberal Democrats monopolise niceness in the coalition), hard-working people lose out with an out-of-control benefits culture and the Conservatives must demonstrate how they can be better off under Prime Minister Cameron.
Good progress is being made; George Osborne will raise the personal allowance every year of this Parliament until it reaches £10,000 and Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms feature as one of the most popular policies of this government (amongst all classes). Yet more, both in PR and policy terms, must be done in the coming years.
A blueprint for this can be formed in reaction to Jones’ book. For example, the Conservatives ought to begin by balancing the collective betterment of the working-class with the opportunity for individuals to rise above their class. Whilst Jones idealises the working class, many working-class people recognise that a life down the mines or behind the supermarket counter is not a glamorous one. A better life for them must be an attainable goal and one the Party encourages.
Secondly, whereas Jones is too willing to absolve working-class people of their responsibility for personal moral failings because of external circumstances (even excusing drug abuse because of unemployment), the Conservatives must hold people responsible for their conduct. However, this must be balanced by congratulating and rewarding more often the majority of “middle-Britain” (those who earn near the median income of £21,000) for the good job they do.
And finally, the Conservatives must change the language of politics in relation to Britain’s modern working-class. Jones astutely observes that the white working-class has had imposed upon it a status similar to that of an ethnic minority. This creates tension with immigrant communities and affords opportunities to groups like the British National Party as legitimate reactionaries for a group marginalised by multiculturalism. The Conservatives need to make the case for this maligned group.
To win at the next election, the Conservatives must cast their net wide. To avoid a second coalition government, or a geographically polarised nation, they must engage with the majority working-class who work hard but are under-rewarded. By leaving the left the only ones still engaging in the debates of the 1980s and by advancing their current policies, the Conservatives can make a good start.
You can purchase ‘Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working-Class’ here.