Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
These were extraordinary results. After eight years of a Conservative Administration – eight years of economic struggle and painful policy decisions – our Party not only managed to avoid a wipe-out but, for the most part, held its own.
In many working-class parts of the country such as Nuneaton, the Tories made proud gains (no small tribute to an extraordinary campaigner, Marcus Jones, now a Party Vice Chairman, in hitherto very tough territory for Conservatives). As Brandon Lewis has pointed out, the Conservatives not only held onto the flagship London councils, but gained seats, from Barnet to Hackney too.
Harlow Town (the ‘urban’ part of my constituency) has, for the most part, always provided a significant Labour stronghold within Harlow Council. We not only beat Labour on the popular vote but gained a seat – and significantly cut down majorities in their heartland areas.
Clearly, CCHQ and field organisers made a significant difference, revitalised under the new Chairman and with a quality social media presence – alongside organisers in marginal areas and some extraordinary Tory volunteers and Council candidates. I lost count of how many Conservatives in my area were always pleased to see themselves on the #CanYouSeeYourself campaigning Twitter meme!
If we were the hare and Labour the tortoise during the 2017 General Election, this time we were the tortoise and Labour the hare, with Corbynistas from John McDonnell to Chris Williamson making outlandish predictions. The Conservatives trouncing the Momentum Whitewalkers was our Jon Snow Moment. The Tory Wall is safe – for now.
But…actually, there is no ‘but’. For the first time in a while, I feel quite optimistic. If we get the policy right and continue to improve the infrastructure at CCHQ, we might be in good shape for 2022. To do so, as I wrote for ConservativeHome last July, Tories must stop the seesaw between Workers’ Conservativism and Metropolitan Conservatism, somehow fusing the two.
Brexit does not make this task impossible in any way.
When out campaigning in strong Brexit areas like Harlow, there is no doubt that the public want the Government to “just get on with it” and for the Prime Minister to show stronger leadership in standing up to the Lords et al. People voted for out – not a halfway house, so a half-in customs arrangement is a negation of the public’s democratic choice. It is not so much ‘Brexit means Brexit’ as ‘Out means Out’.
Whilst we might lose metropolitan Remain voters in the short-term, the work we do now should be building the blocks for post-Brexit Britain. That means bringing an end to policies like the ‘hostile environment’ – as Sajid Javid has already done. We should be positively welcoming EU citizens, and setting out an immigration policy that is fair on immigration and fair to the taxpayer. Perhaps having an annual quota, welcoming the best and brightest around the world, and taking students off the immigration figures would be a good start – and we should set out an immigration policy that is open, fair and looks after vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers. Message and tone are as important as policy.
If the Tories really want to win the hearts and mind of both workers and metropolitans, our party needs to dramatically change our approach to public sector workers, millions of whom feel that Conservatives don’t represent them. Indeed, I recently met an NHS worker at a polling station who explained to me just how many hours he had worked without a break, and that he was going to vote for a party that he believed would “care about the NHS”. I was pretty sure this wasn’t for us.
Fair budgets are the answer. Ten Year Plans for the NHS and education, setting out the strategic policies for the nation and fair wage increases too for public sector workers, could be introduced as we begin to reduce our public sector debt.
In terms of education, we should make decisions on schools funding that will meet our needs over the next decade, not just up until the next budget, and guarantee an apprenticeship for every young person who wants one.
On housing, it doesn’t matter whether you are in Battersea or Nuneaton – it remains unaffordable to many. Millions of our citizens are living in sub-standard or overcrowded accommodation. We are going to have make sacrifices to our green belt (less than 90 per cent of our land is actually built on) and increase social housing supplies, incentivising housing trusts to build affordable housing. Right to Buy and Help to Buy also require further thought: both are great policies, but they can only go so far when one in four of our population have less than £100 in savings.
A wider range of retail policies, such as those on utility bills currently being rolled out by Greg Clark and Claire Perry, should also be considered. We need to focus on policies that appeal to people across the country, such as a mass programme to fix our potholes and bringing an end to hospital car parking charges, once and for all.
At some point before 2022, in amongst all of this, the Conservative Government is also going to have to get back to its DNA – cutting taxes. Since 2010, the Tories have raised the tax threshold for millions, cut business taxes and frozen fuel duty. It’s clear, however, that the most successful Conservative administrations have been those which have cut income tax substantially. As a start, if Tories cut tax for those earning incomes below £45,000, for example, it would cut the cost of living – and give a powerful signal that Conservatives are for the many and not the few.
As I said, I’m feeling optimistic. The local election results are proof that the Conservatives are doing the right thing – and voters are paying attention. If the Tories find a way to fuse Workers’ and Metropolitan Conservatism, and continue the remodelling of CCHQ, we’ll be in good shape for a majority in 2022.