Matthew Elliott is Chief Executive of Business for Britain and Founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
I must begin by declaring an interest: Rob Halfon and I go back a long way. When I was working as a researcher in Parliament, Rob was Chief of Staff to Oliver Letwin, and he was unfailingly kind to the researchers associated with the Shadow Home Secretary’s Office. I was particularly touched when Rob took the time to look over a ‘Strategy Plan’ I’d written for a campaign group that I wanted to set up called the TaxPayers’ Alliance. You might have heard of it.
Many Chiefs of Staff would run a mile from a 24-year-old staffer with a dream to set up a national campaign group. Organisations launch and then fizzle out; people come and go; many in politics don’t see the value of investing time with people outside their bubble. But Rob did take the time to read my plan for the TPA; he helped me with some edits and he even put his reputation on the line by introducing me to various people who could give me advice, not least Tim Montgomerie, who would shortly set up ConservativeHome.
What Rob also did through our conversations (although I didn’t realise this at the time) was to give me prompts on the most effective language to talk about the dry subject of taxation and public spending. I was reminded of this when I heard Rob’s opening speech at ConservativeHome’s ‘Securing a Majority’ conference on Saturday. Rob’s remarks were one of the most electrifying cases for free enterprise I’ve ever heard. If we are going to successfully fend off a return to tax and spend hikes and counterproductive interventions in the market, we need to listen to how Rob makes his case.
Speaking without notes, and talking quietly into the microphone, Rob opened with the story about why he started his campaign to cut Fuel Duty. He talked about visiting a McDonalds which had a sign in the car park saying “Maximum stay 2 hours”. He asked the manager why the sign was needed, and found out that a police officer had been using the car park to sleep in his car overnight because he couldn’t afford the petrol to drive home. That one encounter sparked a difficult campaign, against a political establishment enthral to the green lobby, which has since saved motorists millions of pounds and helped families up and down the country.
Rob also showed how we can use powerful language, currently monopolised by the Left, to make our case. Rather than making the case for tax cuts by referring to the Laffer Curve, why don’t we point out how cutting the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p raised an additional £9bn for the Treasury coffers, and helped pay for the increase in the personal allowance? Why not cut it even further, back to 40p, and use the additional revenue to reintroduce the 10p tax band? Rob referred to this as “redistribution” – an extremely resonant term – but it is not the redistribution of Polly Toynbee, rather it is a free enterprise form of redistribution.
Co-opting and reinterpreting words monopolised by the Left applies in other areas too. We should proudly aim for “Full Employment”, but do so by cutting job-destroying taxes on businesses rather than hiking up tax to pay for more public sector jobs. If we believe in encouraging private healthcare, we should remember that more trade unionists used the private healthcare provided as part of their membership last year than went on strike. Conservatives should be careful not to tar trade union members (who often join for the services) with the same brush they rightly use against the more militant leaders.
In my remarks at the conference on ‘Message’, I praised the party’s ‘Long Term Economic Plan’, and said that it was an extremely good example of a message having substance, being repeated ad nauseam, getting through to the public, and having a positive impact on the party’s standing. But I raised the worry that, whilst we have an economic message, we don’t (yet) have a strong emotional message.
In America, Mitt Romney was seen as being very competent economically, but he lost to Obama because (amongst other things) he was unable to connect with voters emotionally. With Labour swerving to the Left, there is an onus on us to defend free enterprise again. Not in dry economic terms, like Romney, but in emotional terms that connect with people, using words, language and stories that resonate with them. Listening to Rob on Saturday was a masterclass in how this can be done.