‘Growth must reach the North and low-earners’. The headline of George Osborne’s article in The Times caught my eye this morning. Instead of slapping himself on the back, the Chancellor used yesterday’s positive growth figures to send out a message that he intends to create the conditions for private sector job creation outside the south east.
This is a hugely significant intervention. To date, the Conservatives' strategy has been focused on painting themselves as the only party that can be trusted to take the hard economic decisions for the long term benefit of the country. At every opportunity, Labour politicians – notably the two Eds - have been ruthlessly portrayed as big spenders unable to manage the country’s credit card. Downing Street wants people to believe that Balls wouldn’t look out of place on a shopping spree with Carrie Bradshaw (she of Sex in the City fame). This approach has worked. Miliband and Balls have consistently trailed Cameron and Osborne in polling on economic competency.
Today’s message is different. The Chancellor wants to kick off a new conversation focused on job creation. His article makes it clear that under Labour large parts of the country became overly reliant on public sector jobs. While the south east economy grew, large parts of the urban north and midlands were just too unattractive for private sector investment. Osborne wants us to believe Labour let hard working people down by extending tax credits to prop up earnings and failed to create the conditions for growth in large parts of the country.
Importantly, this message ties in to Lynton Crosby’s approach to politics. Pick a dividing line and ruthlessly exploit it on the doorstep. If Tory candidates can persuade swing voters that Labour is still the ‘welfare party’, which has no grand plan to attract private sector jobs to local areas, then just maybe they can win enough votes to turn crucial seats blue.
However, policy as well as politics, especially at a local level, is key to winning over a cynical electorate. National messages around reducing the deficit, creating millions of new jobs and setting up new parent-led schools are all well and good. But what if the local Labour run council is ideologically opposed to Free Schools? What if the local unemployment rate is higher than the national average? What if the high street is full of boarded up shops and there are simply no job opportunities for local people? These are the questions Osborne needs to address. He has found the right dividing line. Now he needs the policies to ram home the message over and over again.
The Chancellor is an astute politician. He knows that while Conservative MPs enter summer recess in buoyant mood, a majority at the next election is still a pipe dream. The party needs to win over floating voters in a number of key marginal seats in towns and cities in the North and the Midlands. Evidence suggests many low and middle income earners feel let down by all parties. Osborne is right to focus on positioning his party as job creators but he will need the policies to back up the rhetoric.