James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The idea of a One Nation party is an attractive one: the idea the Conservatives should appeal to everyone. It’s a useful public campaigning line, but in practice it’s obviously a meaningless concept. The truth is, you can’t appeal to everyone all of the time. Political parties need an overall broadcast message which hopefully many will like, but some won’t.
With that in mind, the Conservatives now face a hard choice: do they become the party of the provincial working class and lower middle class? Or do they fight to maintain their status as the party of the affluent middle class? For at least a chunk of the next decade, it looks like it’s going to be very hard to do both.
As with so much of modern politics, Brexit lies at the heart of the conundrum. Now the Conservatives are committed to a hard Brexit, there’s no turning back for them. They would be accused of unforgiveable breach of trust if they were to soften their stance on the Single Market and free movement. It would be hard for them to be elected again any time soon.
In implementing a hard Brexit, there’s no doubt they’ll be alienating some traditionally Conservative voters – above all, affluent, mostly Southern AB voters. But there’s also no doubt that the Conservatives are going to become hugely more attractive to working class, DE voters in the Midlands and North. These are voters that have long rejected the idea of voting “Tory” out of hand but who are becoming increasingly disaffected with a Labour Party that often looks better suited to fighting for liberal votes in California than it does fighting for working class voters in Sheffield.
It would be too much to suggest that we’re already witnessing a historic realignment. Despite June’s election throwing up some extraordinary results – with Mansfield going Conservative and Kensington going Labour – the Conservatives still lead with affluent AB voters and Labour still lead with poorer DE voters. Things are changing though they could yet change back.
But as Brexit plays out, the Conservatives are going to be more and more attractive to disaffected Labour voters, and less attractive to certain types of affluent middle class voters. Should they wish to do so, Brexit offers the parties a very rare opportunity to fundamentally change their image and who they appeal to.
Appealing to the mass of lower middle class C1/C2 voters in provincial England is not a choice at all: the Conservatives must prioritise these voters, who ultimately determine who walks into Downing Street. I’ve written extensively on this site about how the Conservatives might do this, outside of Brexit policy. But, the “just about managing” aside, the Conservatives do then face a significant electoral choice of emphasis.
The Conservatives could embrace this new opportunity to appeal to the working class and design a platform of social and economic policies with them in mind. While this would emphasise issues like crime and justice, it would likely also emphasise issues like NHS funding and the cost of living. It would be completely negligent to write-off affluent middle class voters – and such a shift would need to be rolled out with a defensive campaign to keep as many of these voters on board as possible (through the media channels most appropriate to them).
Alternatively, the Conservatives could argue that, with Brexit, they were merely implementing the will of the people and that it should be seen as a contained project that won’t change the way the Party views other issues. In effect, the Conservatives would pull Britain out of the EU while massively ramping up a domestic programme designed to appeal to affluent voters. The Party might hope that it could satisfy working class voters that prioritised Brexit, while focusing attention on their core voters.
Which way should the Party go? The cultural shift within the Labour Party and the contempt they show many of their most loyal voters is surely too big an opportunity to miss. Caroline Flint is one of the few people that has hit the alarm button for Labour, pointing out the dangers they face. She’s right and the Conservatives should prove her concerns right. The Conservatives should therefore fuse a working class strategy to a lower middle class strategy and define themselves as a provincial party above all. A combination of a dedicated, highly targeted campaign at the affluent middle class, coupled with a fear of Labour’s hardcore US-style liberalism would keep ABs from significant defection.
Of course, you have to be able to stick to your message. And despite Theresa May’s (or Nick Timothy’s) personal commitment to a realignment not dissimilar to the one described above, it’s not clear there are that many within the Conservatives that buy such a shift (George Trefgarne’s very well-argued article here a few weeks ago is a good example). The push back from posh, Southern Parliamentarians will probably make it culturally and practically difficult for the party to reorient itself to the provincial English hard working classes, so I’m not holding my breath.