Frank Young is a Political Director and Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.

The Conservative Party leadership election needs to be about more than Brexit if it is going to address the issues that face low-income Britain.

Whether you voted leave or remain in 2016, the Conservatives will struggle to win a future general election if they fail to re-connect with those who are most disadvantaged across Britain, and demonstrate that tackling poverty is a top priority.

As an independent think tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) is neutral on who should be the next leader of the Conservative Party. But it isn’t neutral on poverty which is why we have put together this analysis for Conservative MPs and party members choosing the next leader of their party.

We commissioned an opinion poll of low-income voters, the results showed that those on the lowest incomes view the Conservative Party as ‘uncaring’ and disinterested in the concerns of low-income Britain:

  • Only five per cent of low-income voters associate the Conservative Party with being “compassionate”
  • Three quarters (72 per cent) say the Conservative Party is unconcerned about people on low incomes
  • More than half (52 per cent) say that Conservatives “don’t understand what it is like to struggle”
  • Almost six in ten (57 per cent) say that the Conservatives “only care about the rich”

When we asked these voters to ‘describe the Conservative Party’s approach to poverty’ they overwhelmingly came back to a single phrase: ‘they don’t care’.

This is the challenge facing the next leader of the Conservative Party – do you care? It will take more than sympathetic statements. If the party wants to win a general election it needs to put forward an ambitious social policy agenda with a compelling narrative to convince low income voters that the Conservative Party is really on their side.

The better news for the Conservative Party is that there are about one million low income voters who could be persuaded to switch to the Conservative Party. Our polling shows that the Labour Party is taking these voters for granted. When we ask if our voters had heard from either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party in the last year – half told us they haven’t had any contact from the Labour Party (50 per cent), whilst 57 per cent said the same thing about the Conservative Party.

When it comes to matching the Labour Party in campaign effort the Conservative Party isn’t far behind. With better messaging and ambitious social justice policies there is every reason to believe the Conservative Party can pick up votes from poorer households.

So far the early part of the contest has been dominated by the candidates’ views on negotiating (or not) our exit from the EU. Our polling and number crunching of marginal seats shows that this is not the only show in town. The next leader will struggle to be Prime Minister for long if they can’t build a big social justice narrative.

Analysis by the CSJ shows that over 1.4 million poorer voters live in the 100 most marginal seats, which represents one in seven voters in these areas – more than enough to swing the result of the next general election. This is the social justice battleground that is hard to ignore for anyone who wants to be Prime Minister.

Put simply, you can’t win a general election and a working majority in the House of Commons without a clear message to these voters, and a plan to tackle poverty and improve the lives of the poorest.

There are big issues that need to be addressed in this leadership contest, and each of the candidates needs to set out how they would go about tackling them. The CSJ is calling on each of the candidates to make a clear commitment to making social justice a top priority if elected, and to make a statement on their plans to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the poorest voters.

In our political system, some voters are more equal than others. To win, party strategists need to target resources on the marginal seats where a few hundred votes either way could be the difference between winning and losing. In all of the 100 most marginal constituencies the number of the lowest income voters exceeds the majority, making it difficult to win these constituencies without their support.

As they go about trying to persuade MPs and then Conservative Party members to back their campaigns to be the next leader of our party, every candidate should ask themselves what they will do for our poorest constituents and neighbours if they are elected. Our poorest voters need the help of a Conservative government committed to social justice and this will only come from a Prime Minister who clearly demonstrates that commitment.