Antony Calvert contested Morley and Outwood against Ed Balls in 2010.
We can win next year, and detoxify our brand at the same time – not by obsessing over policy through focus groups, but by the language we use and the spokesmen that use it.
One of the less-appreciated consequences of our wipeout in urban and suburban Britain in 1997 was the loss of seats with MPs that bore distinctive and regional accents from the parliamentary party. In being reduced to, essentially, a rural English party we severed our connection with those voters who Margaret Thatcher undeniably appealed to. Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, however you categorise them, were not just disconnected from the Conservatives, they were completely transplanted.
For every patrician Tory criticism of a policy through the Blair years (and there was much to criticise!) an avalanche of regional accented ripostes from Labour spokesmen came back. These smirking replies, a symptom of Labour having such a huge majority over us, patronised our MPs for being ‘daft’, ‘out of touch’, or ‘living in the past’. Which was odd considering that most of what we were saying (even during those very dark days of 1997-2005) closely reflected what the majority of the British public felt.
In the new 24-hour media age we were articulating their concerns, but not speaking their language.
Britain is undoubtedly a centre right country. It is a conservative country by instinct. So the perpetual conundrum is this: why is a party that shares the thoughts and verbose opinions of the vast majority of this centre-right nation of ours not be streets ahead in the polls?
We have the best brains in political affairs and psephology considering the solution, but as of yet nothing really has worked. The Conservative Party still fails the Gogglebox test.
In 2010 I was the Conservative candidate in Morley and Outwood, West Yorkshire. You try getting my former Association Chairman to explain the key ratio between prices and earnings to a family of five where three all work at the massive Coca Cola factory in Outwood. No, he spoke equally as eloquently about how unfair things were that those getting out of bed at 6am to go to work were earning less than the family next door who were on benefits. For the first time in their lives they all voted Tory.
If I could have replicated 50 of him to stand on the thousands of doorsteps we wanted to canvass I am convinced we would have won by a landslide. This was surely echoed in dozens of seats up and down the country that we almost won in 2010 – seats that we need to win in 2015.
Back then, of course, we had the car crash that was Gordon Brown helping us. And, in Morley and Outwood, I had Ed Balls – my biggest electoral asset! This time we also have to overcome Nigel Farage. Not necessarily UKIP, but certainly Farage. The task has become harder.
Without Farage, UKIP would be nothing. Can you imagine a party with Neil Hamilton as leader hitting 18% in some polls? That isn’t to belittle other UKIP members, many of whom are personal friends. In fact, I believe the most common mistake Conservatives make is to go after Farage and make it personal. It won’t work – people have made their minds up about him as much as they did about us after 1997.
Think about it. When he is in the pub having a pint he appeals to those beer and sandwich conservative types who, for one reason or another, will not vote big ‘C’ Conservative. When he nabs a well suited Tory donor or gets a posh banker Tory MP to defect this appeal doesn’t wane – people have decided that Nigel Farage is one of them, irrespective of the company that he keeps. The fact that he has as privileged a background as many on our front bench doesn’t seem to matter. He has the Heineken quality – he can reach parts of the electorate us Tories seem to have trouble with.
He has done this by cultivating his image carefully. He has also the freedom to be able to say pretty much what he wants. His answers to political questions are invariably punctuated with the sort of mannerisms you wouldn’t expect from a conventional politician. He has traded on his status as an outsider by speaking the language of the man in the pub. He has a skill we could do with mimicking.
This should not present too much of a problem. Fast forward from the 1997 wipeout to the 2010 intake. We now have some great new MPs who, through their experiences over the last 4 and a half years, should be given far more responsibility in getting the message across. We can beat Nigel Farage and Labour by simply having the confidence to talk to the electorate that we seek to represent using the language they use themselves. After all, it is the same language that we all use when talking to one another.
I am not advocating being vulgar or offensive, but simply giving the Stuart Andrews, the Eric Ollerenshaws, the Philip Davies’s (how good is that guy when he is skewering Labour!) and the Chris Heaton-Harris’s of this world a free hand to go after our opponents. To make the Gogglebox viewers nod silently in agreement.
Sure, they will occasionally go off message, but that’s what the public want. They want politicians who can speak their language, share their concerns and aspire for the same future as them and their families. Fallibility is no longer a cardinal sin.
The PM’s speech was a case in point. He got angry and emotional pretty much at the same time when describing his experiences of and commitment to the NHS. The result? A poll boost nationally and, significantly, a halving of Labour’s lead on the NHS. Cameron tapped into something we need to use more often – the empathy of the voter.
I believe that it isn’t the policy that will give us that last big push to a majority Conservative government. All the big arguments have been won. Now it’s how we present these to the voters.