May needs a positive agenda and not a vacuum
Despite the worst election campaign since Labour’s 1983 disaster, the Conservative party crash-landed on 43 per cent of the Great Britain vote share and nearly 46 per cent in England – the best performance since the 1980s. So where does the party go? The public are in a radical mood, and May must not become Major – weak, and stumbling to electoral disaster, an establishment figure in a populist era.
I argued two weeks ago on this site that May needs to change, listen to her Cabinet, try to reform not control the civil service, and expand her circle of advisers. But she also needs an agenda that excites and unites the party. The problem is that with a tiny ‘coalition’ Commons majority, no majority in the Lords, a large deficit, and a shredded manifesto, her room for manoeuvre is limited. But below is an attempt to put forward some positive arguments that most Tories might agree with.
Create a Brexit deal that works for our voter coalition
The vast majority of 2015 Conservatives voted Leave, and in 2017, as early analysis shows, we kept almost all of these, and gained UKIP votes, while retaining almost all of our 2015 voters. I’d prefer to leave the Single Market, but our capacity to deliver it in Parliament is weak and the economic shock of leaving too great to cope with. Thus EFTA membership or a deal like it extricates us from ‘ever closer union’, fisheries, farming, defence, justice, the customs union, and most EU payments. We can always go further if we need to later on. If the EU refuses such a deal, voters will at least see that it wants a federal super-state and is prepared to damage its own economy to achieve it, making a ‘no deal’ approach electorally palatable.
This EFTA approach needs to go along with a major reduction in immigration from non-EU nations since it keeps freedom of movement. Data is clear – over seven in ten voters and nearly nine in ten Conservative voters (despite what some pundits or commentators argue) want lower immigration. Were non-EU migration brought down from the current level of nearly 275,000 a year to below 100,000 we would still allow in the Oxbridge students, high skilled spouses, and those with high skills.
We should focus on the culturally similar Old Commonwealth and India as possible. This would hit hard in terms of students at weak universities and chain family migration among low-skill migrants, but these are not our voters, nor is this migration raising per capita GDP. This would either cut immigration to ‘tens of thousands’, or get us close. If immigration does not fall and we stay in the Single Market despite our manifesto, we will rightly be punished for ignoring our voters.
Focus on housing
86 per cent of people still want to own. Each majority Conservative Government since the 1930s has promoted home ownership – Baldwin, Macmillan, Heath, Thatcher/Major, Cameron. Across all incomes people want ownership: seven in ten of those on incomes of £15,000 to £20,000 say they want to own.
Appallingly, we allowed Labour to talk more about home ownership than us. But we need to build more homes of all tenures. Sajid Javid and Alok Sharma needs to be given a clear brief to be tough on NIMBYism (people cannot just say no to homes) and tough on the causes of NIMBYism – slow build out by developers, shoddy design, inadequate infrastructure, obtuse planning rules, insufficient delivery focus. One candidate told me that a village was forced by planners to put a proposed park in a new development at the edge of the village, not between the new and existing homes, in order to meet sustainable development principles. The devil is in the detail.
Focus on tax
Our message on tax cuts for ordinary people and not just corporations was weak. People did not hear we wanted to keep their taxes low. One poll found more people felt they would pay more tax under a Tory than a Labour Government. It time to more systemically take on tax evasion. Why should we allow tax havens like the Channel Islands and Isle of Man to flourish? We need to scrap the rules that allow companies to hide profits and reform business rates, so that we charge less for medium size shops and more for Google and Amazon. This is not anti-capitalism but anti-crony capitalism. And we should recycle the receipts into accelerating tax reductions for average workers.
Focus on fixing Government machinery that fails ordinary people
Ask Cabinet Ministers how they can help ordinary people. The CCHQ script most people use foodbanks because of benefit delays or income shocks is right – 70 per cent, according to the Trussell Trust. But it should be a source of shame that we have a welfare system that punishes people for taking flexible employment.
David Gauke could go through welfare from the perspective of those claiming tax credits or other benefits – down to the forms used and the delays and issues they face in claims and income fluctuations. It wouldn’t cost much but would shows we genuinely care for those in need on zero hours contracts and in the gig economy. Other Cabinet Ministers can try to find similar low cost but impactful approaches.
Start preparing for another banking/debt crisis now
By 2015, far from reducing debt, overall UK debt to GDP was higher than in 2007. It has risen further since. Appoint someone who has the intellectual capacity to grapple with this issue before the next crisis hits (Letwin, O’Brien). If we just end up bailing out the banks in the next crisis and throwing money via QE to boost asset prices not ordinary voters’ incomes, we will go down to a 1997 style wipe-out (and deservedly so).
Focus on how to shore up our power base, including a Federal UK
It is now acceptable for universities to witch-hunt right wing views, while the mass circulation right-wing press has collapsed, and the broadcasters that replaced them are at best vaguely hostile. We need to focus on these facts and work out a plan, not bury our head in the sand.
Re Scotland, Lyndon Johnson is right that the first rule of politics is to learn how to count. Excitement at winning 13 out of 59 seats and 27 per cent of the vote in Scotland must not obscure the fact we won a majority of 60 seats and 46 per cent of the vote in England.
Scottish Tories have not ‘saved us’. England elected a Conservative majority. Opinion polls show support for English devolution (not regional devolution) stands at around 75 per cent of English voters. As Ruth Davidson has effectively turned the Scottish Conservatives into the voice of the union, a federal UK would boost the Conservative party on both sides of the border. We need to move toward it.
Most of all, give people reasons to be Conservative
You can pick apart the items above or replace some of them with your own (i.e: Greg Clark reforming technical education), but the key point is to build our base and give people reasons to be Conservative.
Do not attack or ignore our own people too much. The many pundits and journalists arguing it would be ‘bold’ for May to take on older voters were wrong. It was not ‘bold’ but bonkers. (Note many of the ‘Tory’ commentators arguing for both a soft Brexit and more immigration argued previously the Tories should heavily penalise the old. Their advice has done enough damage already).
No one agrees with everything a Government does – but if they agree with enough they vote for you. A government that becomes the lowest common denominator will fall. May cannot be a stationary establishment figure when faced with the restless mood of the voting public. She must try to take forward a positive Conservative agenda – or we risk a 1997-style wipeout.