David Skelton founded Renewal, with the aim of broadening the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class voters and voters outside of the South East.
It’s been the most dramatic week in British politics that any of us can remember, and it has left the country in urgent need of strong leadership that can unite a nation that has become worryingly fractured.
Of course, negotiating Brexit is going to be top of the agenda for any incoming Prime Minister. They will want to ensure that the UK remains competitive, a good place to create jobs and to set up and locate a business, as well as ensuring that workers’ rights are protected, and strengthened, outside of the EU.
But the new occupant of Number 10 shouldn’t let the focus on Brexit take their eye off other things, especially the fact that the referendum highlighted a divided country.
They will have an opportunity to fashion a new brand of politics that can engage those voters who have become disengaged, disinterested or just plain disappointed with politics over recent years and decades.
Any new Prime Minister can’t afford to be timid – these are important times that require bold thinking and bold measures – measures that go beyond conventional paradigms. They should also make sure that the Prime Minister’s ‘life chances’ agenda doesn’t leave Downing Street with him.
We have two strong candidates – both of whom have shown that they understand the challenges the country faces.
Theresa May has engaged with the Renewal agenda, serving on our board and speaking at events. She also saw the challenges faced by deindustrialised England at first hand when she was candidate in Consett, two years after the Miner’s Strike and only a few years after the closure of the steelworks. Andrea Leadsom has spoken about the importance of social justice, especially in early years.
Politically, any new Conservative leader can’t retreat into the certainties of a comfort zone. If modernisation is anything it is a constantly moving project.
The need for continual modernisation can be summed up by the fact that a set of uniquely beneficial circumstances led to the Conservatives gaining their smallest majority in the modern age. Negative perceptions of the Tory ‘brand’ remain strong and, in many cases, electoral success seems dependent on a greater level of negativity about electoral opponents.
Conservatives should continue talking outwardly to the country, rather than inwardly to the Party. They should continue with efforts to ensure that the party looks and sounds more like the country as a whole, with priorities that are also the priorities of voters.
And there are three areas where the new Prime Minister can fulfil a desire to have a country that works for everybody and a politics where people are engaged, rather than marginalised.
A focus on the ‘left behind’ voters
There were thumping votes for Brexit in most parts of what is now described as ‘post industrial Britain’. For many voters this was the first vote they had cast in decades – areas where general election turnout barely nudges 50 per cent saw around three quarters of voters turning out to vote.
For these voters, the referendum was a chance to emphatically reject the political status quo that they think has ignored them for decades and an economic system that they feel doesn’t work for everybody and has stopped rewarding hard graft.
Skilled work, strong community institutions and buoyant communities have all too often been replaced with insecure jobs, poor wages and fractured communities. The ten parts of England with the highest levels of worklessness were all once dominated by heavy industry, and ‘post-industrial’ parts of the UK are generally marked by poorer health and education outcomes and higher levels of poverty.
Many of the areas that voted heaviest for Brexit are those that have grown disenchanted by mainstream politics and feel that politicians of all parties have failed to deliver on their promises. Any new Prime Minister needs to address these issues or face a sizeable portion of voters who feel that mainstream politics has utterly failed them.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of deindustrialisation, this generation of politicians is far enough away from the event itself to be able to see its social damage and seek to repair that damage. Politicians should seek to restore hope and vitality to towns that, in many cases, have lost both.
Such a prioritisation means that, whatever libertarian critics might say, government needs to act in order to intensively regenerate long-neglected economies, create the conditions for jobs in the new economies and ensure that people have the infrastructure and digital skills to succeed.
This would bring about a positive difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people and leave a lasting legacy that any politician would be proud of.
Focus on helping the poorest and improving life chances
For a long time, Tory politicians have been scared to talk about inequality and have only gingerly addressed issues related to poverty. That doesn’t need to be the case – Conservatives shouldn’t simply ignore an issue that there is clearly large and growing public concern about.
Instead, they should aim to show how their policies are best able to address growing public concern and they should do this by placing a real focus on helping the poorest, creating an economy that works for everybody and improving life chances for all.
The introduction of the National Living Wage, which we campaigned for on a number of occasions, was a real step towards this kind of politics and certainly provides something to build on.
The next government should look to ensure that the poorest are always net beneficiaries from any Budget and that work always pays, alongside a programme of social reform aimed at boosting life chances.
Given that the poorest will be those who most suffer from any erosion in worker’s rights, a post Brexit government should ensure that these rights are preserved and strengthened.
Housebuilding and home ownership for those who most need it
Housebuilding has an important place in the pantheon of Tory social reform. From Disraeli’s slum clearance to Macmillan’s home building programme, housing has always been crucial to Conservatives, as has the importance of home ownership.
A new Prime Minister should take up this tradition and make housing a central part of their agenda.
Home ownership in the UK is now below the level of France and below the EU average. At the same time, the level of private renting has almost doubled in the last decade, with people often being stuck in low quality, high cost, private rented accommodation.
Levels of housing stock remains too low and for many people, particular those at the lower end of the income spectrum, home ownership is little more than a pipe dream.
Whoever becomes Tory leader should be driven by a sense of mission to tackle the housing crisis and ensure that home ownership is something that is affordable to all. If this necessitates state involvement, then so be it.