The Conservative Party has a Midlands and Northern working-class and lower-middle-class base. But the Party is still culturally Southern posh, with practically no activist base in the North of England.
The Government was elected by people it doesn’t know well, while the Party represents seats most senior Conservatives couldn’t place on a map.
Over the last few years, I can think of only a tiny number of people who endorsed the pivot that delivered the Party’s great victory. Most Conservatives in Westminster thought the future lay in creating an offer to the young professional class in cities. This was, we were told, the politically sophisticated approach. But here we are. How should the party meet this challenge?
Above all, by becoming the party of labour – in its genuine sense. Let’s strip away the extremely serious but short-term political issues of Brexit and Corbyn’s extraordinary unpopularity. What binds together those working class and lower middle class voters that moved to the Conservatives is this: they work hard – they really labour – and they want to see that labour fairly rewarded.
For many years – certainly since the end of Gordon Brown’s time in politics – they haven’t felt the Labour Party has represented those that labour like them. Instead, they think Labour worries mostly about people that don’t work. The Conservatives have been the beneficiaries of that.
Just before the election, I watched some old YouTube videos of Tony Blair just before he became Prime Minister in 1997. That was the first election I followed, but I’d forgotten what it was like. I was staggered by Blair’s language. Ruthlessly focused on job creation, economic growth, fair taxes, and fair working conditions, it sounded culturally totally alien to the modern Labour Party’s obsessions with identity and rights. He spoke about looking after the livelihoods of those that labour and who worry about paying their bills.
Those that Blair successfully attracted to the Labour Party have vanished, even from the constituency he represented. If the Conservatives decide seriously to become the party of labour, it will set in train a series of other decisions that will improve lives in these areas and reap electoral rewards.
What does this mean in practice? Let’s separate the cultural from the policy-specific.
Culturally, it means that the Party should constantly think about four things: labour should be fairly rewarded; those that labour should be able to provide adequately for their families; those that labour should be able to live locally; and that those that labour should live in pleasant places. In summary, the Conservatives should obsess about ensuring those that live in these newly won constituencies can work and live in their areas – with their families – and feel safe and happy as they do so.
Thinking about policies, what does this mean? That taxes should be as low as possible, so people can keep more of their money; the welfare system should reward those that work hard more than those that choose not to (those that can’t work are a separate case and should be treated very generously); corporate taxes should be as low as possible, particularly in less affluent areas, to encourage investment; local schools, colleges and universities in less affluent areas should be prioritised to ensure the local workforce is well-educated and highly skilled; the tax system should not make it harder for people to buy houses locally (throughout their lives, not least as they downsize); crime and anti-social behaviour should be tackled robustly; and high streets should be re-purposed to provide entertainment, not just consumer goods. There are clearly many more, but here’s a start.
The manifesto floated ideas that will help tackle these challenges. It was well thought-through and perfectly targeted. But there were areas that the party dodged, for understandable reasons. They ultimately avoided serious welfare reform and the introduction of a contributory model; their tax policies were quite timid, particularly for businesses; education and skills policies need greater detail; and policies to boost local high streets also now need serious attention.
But the job now is not to win an election but to improve these areas and keep working class voters for the longer-term. They should therefore treat the manifesto as the guiding light, not the final blueprint.
But it won’t be enough simply to enact policies. The Conservative Party needs to build an infrastructure to help them build an advocacy and fundraising framework across the Midlands and North. The experiences of Dominic Cummings and Danny Kruger will be crucial here. Cummings because, with his uncle, he personally built business support for the North East Says No campaign against a Regional Assembly in 2004. He created a small-c conservative network somewhere with few activists. And Kruger because of his extensive experience working with independent, voluntary groups who engage in social policy.
The Conservatives are going to struggle to simply recruit activists like they do in the South, with meetings in nice pubs and summer parties in donors’ gardens. In the Midlands and North, above all, they will need to harness business support and non-state social activist groups.
But this in turn takes us back to culture. If the top of the Party is still essentially Southern posh, how will it make the right decisions? Actually, the adviser class is remarkably provincial. At Number 10, Dominic Cummings, Munira Mirza, and Lee Cain all come from the North of England. Elena Narozanski’s spiritual home lies in the East Midlands. Across the departments, a number of advisers like Alex Wild come from the provinces.
But the Party will also need to create a federation of think tanks, campaigns, politicians, businesspeople, and voluntary groups who both understand these newly-won areas and who have a desire to improve lives here. The scale of the challenge is vast, but ultimately it’s a “good problem” to have. And the Conservatives have shown they’re capable of appealing to these voters.
One last thing: if the Conservatives don’t deliver Brexit then all of the above is irrelevant.