Luke de Pulford is Director of the Arise Foundation.
Come on, you’ve all heard it. It doesn’t matter where you campaigned. If you haven’t had someone spit these words at you and slam the door in your face, you probably haven’t covered enough ground.
The opprobrium runs deep. “I was brought up to hate Tories” said Labour MP Jess Philips in an interview last year. “I’ll always hate the Tory Party”, chorused the Manic Street Preachers. Don’t even get me started on Lily Allen.
Institutional memory is a powerful thing, and the nasty party label isn’t going away any time soon. In my experience, this is at least as much about what the brand represents as it is actual policies.
One of the most calamitous aspects of the 2017 campaign was that it admitted defeat on this point. The word ‘Conservative’ was utterly jettisoned, with candidate literature advertising that they were ‘Standing with Theresa May’ instead. Hiding from the party brand actually became campaign policy.
Some naive pundits have suggested that this was down to May’s sky-high approval ratings. No way. I’d bet my house that Crosby has reams of data demonstrating the toxicity of the words ‘Tory’ and ‘ Conservative’. How else could they justify deploying such a strategy?
The worrying thing for the Party is that generations with far less attachment to the institutional prejudices of their parents are developing the same visceral hatred. There are a lot of people out there who seem to believe that being Conservative means worshipping the market and allowing the devil to take the hindmost. Whatever you think of Nick Timothy, he understood the need to explode these myths, but he’s gone now and the neoliberals are on the march.
Too few in the Party recognise the urgency of addressing the brand problem. Our world is utterly dominated by image and perceptions. How can we expect young voters to champion the label ‘Conservative’ when even our MPs recoil from it? I saw the looks on young activist faces when they were asked to wear those ridiculous rosettes: somewhere between bafflement and excruciating shame.
Contrast this with the legions of young people who donned Labour merchandise, and actually made it look good. The only Tories I saw proudly putting their conservatism out there were those tweeting selfies to impress CCHQ.
Part of the problem is that the Tory modernisation project under Cameron (by which people really mean un-nastification) was never going to work. It doesn’t matter how many socially liberal pieces of legislation he championed: the guy was the Platonic form of old-school Toryism and obviously the wrong medium for the modernising message. George Osborne, the same.
Ruth Davidson, on the other hand, is making it OK to be a Tory again in Scotland. No mean feat. She’s doing it by embracing a clear, compassionate policy agenda while – crucially – embodying her message. She is unashamed about being Conservative.
There are important lessons to learn, here. Ours is a generation weened on branding: painfully image sensitive and capable of detecting disingenuous messaging a mile off. The problem for Westminster Tories is that those deployed to tell the country that austerity really means fiscal responsibility and that the Conservatives are not the ‘Party of the few’ look, talk and act like the few. This is the losing formula that will put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street.