Steven Woolfe is an independent Member of the European Parliament for North West England.
I grew up on a council estate in Manchester where, it is said, “if you put a donkey with a red rosette on, people will always vote Labour and never ever elect a Tory”. When I first entered politics I was told that tribal divisions rule and no political party could escape them. Labour has the working class sewn up. The Conservatives have Middle England sewn up.
Well, frankly, a lot of the above is true, but my days in UKIP taught me too many people look down on the electorate and don’t listen to them – and, when they cared to do so, voters changed their alliances. UKIP did spectacularly, for a while, on those same northern council estates of my youth.
In the 2017 election, the Conservative Party targeted those same seats that UKIP won. Indeed, they say there is a strategy to win them back. In her first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of 10 Downing Street, Theresa May said: “If you’re from an ordinary working class family…I know that sometimes life can be a struggle.”
Yet despite her warm words and her policies, the 2017 election did not bring spectacular results. The Conservatives won some over, but even though they promoted themselves as the party of Brexit, and despite the travails of the Labour Party, their strategy failed. So why did this happen?
The Conservative Party has approached this in totally the wrong way. They talk in ‘brand’ language and with ad hoc policies, so trapped in the cosy Westminster bubble that they cannot fully understand how the rest of the country sees them.
The motto at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference was ‘Building a country that works for everyone’, but this does not convince working class people in the north who see no or little improvement to their daily lives. I have seen many attempts by the Tories to ‘woo’ working class voters with new policies. In the run-up to the 2017 election, they announced a bunch of giveaways which they thought might make a difference, such as new statutory rights for workers and extra worker protections. And how did that work out? I wouldn’t be surprised if these didn’t sway a single person’s vote in the country; not a single one.
That is because policies which the Conservatives think are important to northern communities make very little difference at all; the problem is not the Conservatives’ manifesto, but the Party’s attitude and tone. Here’s the evidence: if you show people Conservative Party policies without letting them know which party the policies belong to, most voters will say they will agree with them. They will rescind that as soon as you let them know it’s the Conservative Party.
So what’s the problem? Increasingly, when working class people watch or hear Conservative politicians, they feel that they are being talked down to, lectured by university-educated snobs who think they know what is best for the rest of the country, and who importantly dismiss working class people’s views as a result of a lack of education. The issue lies in the Party’s image and how it communicates with voters, not the actual message.
So why did northern, working class communities continue to vote Labour?
Part of the reason was the Tories’ tactics towards Corbyn: attack him, portray him as dangerous, but don’t take him on at debates. This strategy clearly backfired. Whilst I think Corbyn is indeed ‘too big a risk’ and a victory for him would result in ‘chaos’ for Britain, this sort of overt personal attack and snobbery only pushes voters to rebel.
This political snobbery reached ascendancy under Cameron and Osborne and, although I was initially optimistic, we have only seen a further continuation under May. This was epitomised when she refused Corbyn’s offer of a televised debate during the campaign. The decision was foolish and sent the wrong message to voters: if a candidate truly believes they are more of a leader than their opponent, they must prove it.
This, of course, has a policy dimension: on those issues of most importance to working class people – Brexit and immigration – the Conservative Party leadership is not only out of touch, they show an active disdain for working class views on these topics. The Conservative Party (and the Labour Party, too) has been captured and overtaken by a metropolitan elite. This explains why the Leave vote came as a particular shock to many within the Westminster bubble: step out of London and you gain a more accurate picture of the national feeling.
The country is riven by a massive cultural and class divide. When working class people watch the Conservative Party leadership, they see people who do not look like them, do not sound like them, and do not have the same values as them. I know that working class people from the north like honesty and dislike pretence. We call a spade a spade.
For example, on one of the key issues of immigration, the Tories say they want to control immigration but no one believes them. They think it’s all smoke and mirrors. This is because they know the Government is filled with politicians who want open borders, who will not control borders but will pretend they are. As a recent YouGov survey shows, 63 per cent of Conservative voters and 44 per cent of all voters think the Government is not strict enough on immigration
The Conservative Party likes to talk up its working class credentials, but there are now very few people with working class backgrounds in the Cabinet or in ministerial positions. Indeed, all political parties focus so much energy on gender, race and LGBT diversity in their parties, but that same attention is not given to class diversity. How can the working class feel represented when they see a government not focusing on their issues?
The promotion of Sajid Javid to Home Secretary is progress – a working class Lancashire boy, son of a bus driver – but such representation is still lacking across the Cabinet. If the Conservative Party wants to win over these voters it needs to have more voices that working people recognise and who values echo their own; but before the party can do that, it first needs to come to terms with the snobbery that prevents it from promoting just these people within its ranks. Only then can the Conservatives start making significant gains in England’s rust belt and truly become a party that works for everyone.