Luke Tryl is a director at Public First. He is a former is Director of the New Schools Network, Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and former Special Adviser.
Any good consultant will tell you that the heart of strategy is all about deciding what not to do, who not to target, where not to expend energy. Most organisations, and for that matter most governments only have limited bandwidth and therefore the hardest decision is often where to invest your resources for maximum benefit.
I’m sure that’s why many of those offering thoughts on a Downing Street ‘reset’ think the Government must choose between conservatism for Notting Hill and conservatism for Workington. I disagree: a brief look at the history of the Conservative Party plainly shows that choice is a false one, and there exists a reset agenda that manages to level up and hug a huskie at the same time.
Firstly, it’s all about the rhetoric. There is no doubt the country is divided, from Brexit to lockdown, national heritage to migration, race relations to gender identity. But so much of these divisions have been, if not caused, certainly exacerbated by the Government’s seeming zeal to enter every culture war row.
There is an argument that creating a false choice between Notting Hill and Workington to unite the leave vote, was a necessary price to pay to defeat a uniquely dangerous Labour leader and excise the poison of anti-Semitism. But it is certainly not a formula for Government and will not pass muster in the face of a mainstream, competent opposition.
Rather than indulging in the rhetoric of ‘hard rains’ or briefing crowd-pleasing headlines about ‘sticking it to the National Trust’, the Government can afford to and would be wise to, switch off campaign mode, and use its position to look at how to solve cultural and social divides rather than exacerbate them.
That doesn’t mean selling out on the ‘red wall’ – I’ve seen zero evidence from polling or focus groups that voters in these areas are yearning for a ‘war on the BBC’. But it does mean, on such issues as Brexit, recognising (four years after the fact) that you’ve won and that, as the victor, it is incumbent on you to build a unifying peace. As we leave the transition period, the Government should engage in the long overdue mission of showing the half of the country who voted against leaving the EU that they are not ‘citizens of nowhere’ but have just as much of a stake in post-Brexit Britain as those that voted for it.
That’s not just good electoral sense – and the only way of ever bringing the Canterburys and Batterseas back into the Conservative fold – but it matters for the sake of Union. There is no doubt the culture war rhetoric has played into the hands of the SNP, and driven up support for Scottish Independence. If the Party is to take its unionist credentials seriously, it should be projecting a unifying message about why we are better off together, rather than amplifying the cultural divides between us. As the Biden victory showed just this month, kindness can be far more powerful than divisiveness in crafting a winning electoral strategy.
But what about the substance? Sure, there are differences of emphasis between Cameron’s 2015 agenda and Boris’s 2019 manifesto, but when it comes down to the fundamentals, there are enough issues for the Government to address that unite both Workington and Notting Hill.
First, social care. The spiralling costs of social care – the risk of losing your home to pay for care and the post code lottery in care provision – are an issue which affect everyone apart from the very wealthiest. Announcing a fair, sustainable long-term settlement – good for Workington and Notting Hill.
Second, childcare. Ensuring parents and carers have access to wrap-around care, building on the work of the coalition in expanding access to free care, allowing more creativity in how parents can get their care – for instance, allowing them to pay grandparents and other family members – good for Workington and Notting Hill.
Third, good schools. The academies programme, born in London, finally seems to have hit its stride outside of the major cities thanks to educational powerhouses like Outwood Grange, Inspiration and Star academies. The Government should double down on helping them to spread excellence across the country – good for Workington and Notting Hill.
Fourth, housing. The housing crisis isn’t just a concern for Londoners, speak to grandparents anywhere in the country and they’ll tell you their worries about their grandchildren getting on the housing ladder. Again, there’s an opportunity here to combine building homes with strategies making ownership easier and supplying enough decent social housing – good for Workington and Notting Hill.
Finally, jobs and skills clearly sit at the heart of the levelling up agenda. Proper reform of FE, apprenticeships and technical education are long overdue. Rather than presenting this as the atavistic (and ultimately self-defeating) desire to return to the jobs of the past, we should put green skills at the heart of technical education reforms, both allowing Britain to lead the world on the green agenda, and create jobs along the way – again combining the key elements of Cameroonism with levelling up.
There are many more – the need to regenerate high streets applies right across the country. Support for savers would go down just as well in Halifax as in Bromley. There’s a settlement on immigration to be reached that recognises the need for control, but which also shows compassion to the vulnerable rather than pretending we’re under attack from a fleet of dinghies in the channel.
What’s more, uniting Notting Hill and Workington is the only sustainable electoral strategy in the long term. Divide and rule will only ever get you so far and will do nothing to close a yawning age and demographic gap that will eventually catch up with the Conservative Party. The Tory party always has to guard against being seen as the nasty party; culture war victories one-year can easily leave you looking out of touch just a few years later.
Those who believe that the divides of the Brexit referendum can never be resolved or point to some deeper malaise that the Government must lean into, are being utterly defeatist. People in this country are tired of the endless divides and division – the future electoral prize is for the party that shows they are the ones that can provide the healing, and if the Conservative Party won’t, a resurgent Labour Party under Keir Starmer most surely will.