David Davis is MP for Haltemprice and Howden, and is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
The Conservative victory last Thursday was not just a landslide win: it marked the beginning of the transformation of our political landscape and our country.
The new MP for Blyth Valley, Ian Levy, won a mining constituency never previously held by the Conservatives . As a former NHS worker he is, like many of his new colleagues, anything but a toff, and signals a coming transformation in the complexion of the Party both in Parliament and the country. A number of the new 109 MPs are Tory working class heroes.
The question on everybody’s mind, from the Prime Minister to the newest arrival, is: “now that we have won them can we hang on to them?” If we are any good at our job, the answer to that question should be a resounding “yes”. Many Labour MPs – not just the left-wing apologists for Jeremy Corbyn -are consoling themselves that these Labour constituencies will return to type at the next election.
But they should look at Scotland, where the SNP swept aside a previously dominant Labour Party riddled with complacency and corruption – and it still has not come back. The same could happen in England and Wales if they are not careful.
It was clear on the doorstep during these last six weeks that the electoral base of the Conservative Party has changed dramatically. Our voters are more working class and more urban. They are more provincial and less metropolitan. They have a no-nonsense common-sense, and are certainly not politically correct. They have a quiet unassuming patriotism – proud of their country but respectful of foreigners. They are careful with money, and know it has to be earned. They want tougher policing but also have a strong sense of justice. They depend more on public services, and are the first to get hurt when these fail. Many of them would be classified as “working poor” and dependent on welfare payments, although they themselves may not see it that way.
So what should we do in order more fully to win their trust? Obviously we should deliver on our manifesto: get Brexit done, and provide more money for the health service, for education, for the police, and for more infrastructure – not least new broadband. But this is nowhere near enough. A manifesto should be a lower limit on delivery, not an upper limit on aspiration.
This should be no surprise. The Thatcher manifesto of 1979 was fairly slim. It certainly did not detail the actions of most radical and eventually most successful government of the twentieth century.
What Thatcher achieved was a revolution in expectations: about our country, about ourselves, about what was possible. We have to do the same.
And our target should be unlimited. We should be planning to prove to our new base that we care about improving their lives, but we should also be targeting the votes of younger people, too. There should be no no-go areas for the new Conservatives. Fortunately, the necessary policies are similar, and they require Boris Johnson’s hallmark characteristic – boldness.
There should be a revolution in expectations in public service provision, from health care to education. This is about imagination more than money. There are massive technological opportunities opening up, from genetics to big data to diagnostic technology, and we should be enabling the NHS to make better use of it.
On the education front, the international comparisons have not shown much progress since the turn of the century, despite the best efforts of successive Education Secretaries, Other countries from China to Belgium have seized on new technology to completely reengineer the classroom. We should be doing the same.
And we should now work to further social mobility. None of my doorstep conversationalists mentioned this phrase, but many talked about the opportunities (or lack of) for themselves and their children, which is the same thing. We used to be a world leader in social mobility; now we are at the back of the class. Every government since Thatcher has paid lip service to the problem, but none has done anything about it. Indeed, they have made it worse.
Take for example the disastrous university tuition fees and loans system introduced by Tony Blair and made worse by David Cameron. It has delivered poor educational outcomes, high costs, enormous debt burdens and widespread disappointment, as well as distorting the national accounts.
The heaviest burden of this failure falls on young people from the poorest areas. The Augar Report gave strong hints about how to fix it, even though its terms of reference forbade it from providing an answer. The new policy aim should be simple. Allow children of all backgrounds a worthwhile education to get good enough qualifications to start a decent career without crushing lifetime loans. It should be an early priority of this government. It would be the single most targeted way of helping a generation that deserves our support.
One of Thatcher’s great contributions to social mobility was to encourage home ownership: 65 per cent of young people either owned or were buying their own homes then. Today, that number is 25 per cent. The reason is simple. We are just not building enough homes. In the last 15 years the population has grown by just shy of seven million people.
We have built nowhere near enough houses to cope with that. The current incremental strategy is not up to the job, and we need to adopt a wholesale programme of garden towns and villages around the country, and a new process to drive much of the planning gain to reducing house prices and improving housing and service quality. We should also look very closely at reform of the Housing Association sector, to deliver more homes for both rent and sale. We were once a proud homeowning democracy, and a return to that would not be a bad aim for a modern Conservative Party.
This would be just a start. But it has to be paid for. This has always been the Conservative Party’s trump card: the ability to run the economy and deliver the funding for good public services. Brexit opens up the possibility of a new economic renaissance, which the Prime Minister believes in, and is capable of seizing with both hands.
But we will need to rediscover the Lawson lessons: that simpler, lower taxes deliver more growth, more jobs, more wealth, and eventually more tax revenue. Our tax system is now littered with irrational anomalies – most recently demonstrated by senior doctors refusing to do extra work because they were effectively being taxed at 100 per cent as a result of covert Treasury pension taxes.
It is time we swept much of this structure away, and liberated people to gain from their own efforts without excessive state burdens. It should also not be too hard for us to do it in a way that helps the North as well as the South. And this does not just apply at the top: the working poor face similar anomalies under the tax credit system.
Which brings us back to the ‘new’ Conservative working classes. We should not imagine that an appeal to them is a novel gambit bu the Conservative Party.* The most successful political organisation in the world for two centuries has been just that because for most of that time it has relied on the working class for at least half of its vote.
From Disraeli’s reforming government to Shaftesbury’s great social and industrial chang, to Lord Derby’s legalisation of trades unions, we have a long and deep commitment to caring about the welfare of the working classes. If this were not true, one of Johnson’s old Etonian predecessors as Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, would never have won the impoverished North Eastern constituency of Stockton – and held it throughout the great depression. And of course in modern times Margaret Thatcher inspired Essex man and held many seats in the North – not least Darlington, which we won back last week.
So we have been here before. Blue collar Conservatism has a proven track record – one we should resurrect. In this new political battle, the greatest tension will not be left versus right or even fiscal and monetary doves versus economic hawks. It will be a battle between creativity and convention. I have always thought that the Prime Minister subscribes to Nelson’s maxi that “Boldness is the safest course,” so I suspect that this will be a battle that he will relish. If he does, these will not be the last seats we win in the Midlands Wales and the North.
A few years ago I presented a BBC Radio 4 programme which showed that the Conservative Party has been heavily dependent on working class votes for most of its 200 year lifespan.