Dowsett is a Conservative Party activist and a former Vice-Chairman of
Southampton University Conservative Association.
“When I was growing up in Aberdeen, I wanted to go to university. I wanted more people from my background to go to university. I want to give them that chance” (Michael Gove, March 2013).
At the heart of the contemporary debate surrounding the shortcomings of conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic is the concept of the ‘empathy gap’. This concept describes a belief among some portions of the electorate that, despite the sense they see in policies advocated by centre-right politicians, the motives underpinning those policies are perceived to be to the detriment of either themselves or those more disadvantaged in society.
Captured by the ‘party of the rich’ label, which is frequently attributed to both the Republican and Conservative Parties, this trend has the ability to seriously undermine the long-term electability of the centre-right in both the U.S. and the U.K. A large part of the reason why Mitt Romney failed to capture the White House last November lay in the fact that only 18% of the one-fifth of the electorate who prioritised a President who “cares about people like me” opted for the Republican nominee, while a massive 81% voted for President Obama. Additionally, according to CNN, only 34% of the electorate thought that Governor Romney had economic policies which would generally benefit the middle-class; ten points behind the President.
In this country, a recent YouGov poll found that only 4% of respondents feel that David Cameron is “in touch with the concerns of ordinary people”, comfortably behind Ed Miliband and even the woefully unpopular Nick Clegg. In May 2010, a healthier – but still disappointing – 20% of respondents to YouGov thought that Mr. Cameron was in touch with ordinary people’s concerns.
As has been noted elsewhere on Conservative Home, the key to building an electoral coalition capable of delivering future conservative majorities in this decade and beyond lies in combining the virtues of strength and compassion. To elaborate, the Conservatives in the UK, for example, must be strong on restoring economic solvency and balancing the nation’s books, as well as in tackling traditional policy areas such as crime and immigration. However, the Party’s message will be unbalanced unless a sincere concern with and compassion towards the less well-off in society is seen to underpin the policies which we advocate.
Whilst a variety of policies, including tax cuts for the low paid, could be effectively used to articulate the centre-right’s compassion towards the poorest, one area which has in the recent past proven successful in meeting this goal for conservative politicians is education. As can be seen from the quotes at the start of this article, both the Republicans and the Conservatives have at their fingertips a strong, compelling and compassionate narrative on education; one which unashamedly promotes opportunity and social mobility against leftist dogma and vested interests within the educational establishment.
In the run up to the 2000 Presidential election, the then Texas Governor, George W. Bush, adopted the traditionally Democratic policy area of education as a key plank of his platform as a ‘compassionate conservative’. Despite a booming economy and a period of relative world peace, Bush managed to defeat Vice-President Al Gore that autumn and demonstrated his commitment to education by signing the substantial, if somewhat flawed, No Child Left Behind Act into law in January 2002.
Even with the ascendance of the Democrats in both the legislative and executive branches of government at the end of the last decade, education policy in the United States is still framed to a significant extent in Republican terms, with President Obama’s flagship ‘Race To The Top’ initiative encouraging the further growth of Charter Schools and the establishment of performance-based standards in teaching since 2009. The political value of education to the Republicans also shows greater signs of being appreciated by the Party since last November’s defeat, with the Republican National Committee’s recent ‘Growth and Opportunity Book’ citing reforms made to education by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal in Louisiana as a blueprint for the GOP in coming forward with “inclusive and appealing” policies at a national level in 2016.
On this side of the Atlantic, Conservatives, led of course by Education Secretary Michael Gove, have also successfully started to re-orient the debate on education, particularly in relation to schools reform, towards conservative language and priorities since 2010. Indeed, the significant education policy agenda encompassing greater diversity in education provision and comprehensive curriculum and examination reform implemented by Mr Gove already seems light-years away from the stale ‘investment versus cuts’ and ‘standards not structures’ dividing lines which dominated the early years of New Labour. The current Labour confusion over whether a Miliband-led administration after 2015 would place Free Schools under local authority control is indicative of the extent to which the centre-right is intellectually on the front foot regarding education policy at the present time.
While the increasing importance of conservative insights to education policy-making over the last decade or so cannot be taken for granted, the Right’s success in this regard represents a significant electoral opportunity. Not only will making progressive education reform synonymous with the centre-right for the long-term deliver life-changing results for pupils themselves, it can also play a key part in expanding the centre-right coalition on both sides of the Atlantic.
The ability of conservative parties to win increasing support from women voters is a key example. For example, while Mitt Romney won 52% of the male vote last November, he won only 44% of the female vote, losing this group (who comprised 53% of all voters) to President Obama by eleven points. In the UK, and despite a traditional Conservative dominance among female voters, the Conservatives polled two points lower among female voters at the last general election than they did amongst men.
Part of this differential is likely to be derived from the greater concern of women voters with politics as it relates to their direct experiences and those of their family, as has been noted by Tom Mludzinski of Ipsos MORI elsewhere on this blog. This leads to an assessment of who to support by women which draws more on social policy areas, education included, and whether the respective parties’ offerings not only offer the chance to improve their own family’s life chances, but whether they will be of wider societal benefit.
This observation brings me back to the point made at the outset of this article, namely: motives matter. The bridging of the empathy gap between centre-right parties and those they seek to persuade to support them represents a key challenge for both the Republicans and the Conservatives, but one which is by no means insurmountable. Centre-right advances in the field of education policy since the turn of the century represent an electoral trump card which conservatives can use to demonstrate a holistic message, emphasising both strength and compassion, to the electorate.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the politics of the next few years will determine whether this opportunity is seized or is allowed to slip away. In the UK, the Conservative campaign in the 2015 general election, now just over two years away, must seize the nascent electoral advantage which reformist Conservative achievements in education policy since 2010 have engendered. Failure to do so gives rise to the possibility of the Party failing to maximise its support amongst key voter groups, and also endangers the Conservatives’ ability to become the champions of a radical, inclusive centre-right politics in Britain in the future.