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”.
Policy development often gets sneered at by hard-bitten campaign hacks, but without it the parties and their leaders have nothing to sell in campaigns – and nothing to offer voters when they’re in Government. Lord Saatchi’s New Generation and Neil O’Brien’s eagerly-awaited new venture will be welcome new additions to intellectual life Westminster. But where should the centre-right actually be focused? Where are the policy vacuums and which are the nationally important areas where the public has lost trust with centre right arguments? Four big issues stand out.
The first is healthcare. Here, the Centre-Right is nowhere, and this visible lack of interest is dragging the Conservative Party down in the polls. In last week’s column, I argued that Philip Hammond should make next week’s Budget a healthcare Budget. In doing so, that means massively prioritising the NHS as a target for spending. In many ways, that’s a disappointing recommendation as it’s clearly a short-term political fix, but it’s a necessary one. The centre-right needs to create useful policies for the medium to long term.
To date, it has generally focused on the macro problems with the NHS model, recommending wholesale change and its possible replacement with a social insurance model. While it’s true to say that some countries with a similar model have better health outcomes, in a British setting it’s not sellable. The public are completely wedded to the NHS as they see it; anything that could be portrayed as the importation of the American model will be met with fear and voter hostility. So what can the Centre-Right offer which doesn’t either rely on cash injections or on the “radical reform” option that looks like the end of the NHS?
The public conversation on healthcare normally revolves around hospitals. But most people’s experience with the NHS comes through their local GP practice. While the Conservatives should ultimately seek to extend their opening times, they should look at improving the non-urgent, low-level care that many no longer even seek anymore because of the difficulty of securing an appointment. The Centre-Right should look at the issue of convenient care. The NHS has recently launched GP at hand – a new service that allows patients to see a doctor over their phone, usually within a couple of hours. The centre right should be looking to develop similar proposals that use technology to make care more convenient and that massively lighten the burden on the physical infrastructure of the NHS.
The second big area that the Centre-Right needs to pay more attention is crime and justice. Glyn Gaskarth and Peter Cuthbertson have been two of the only policy researchers that have been actively promoting new ideas in this space in recent times. While this is an area where the Centre-Right historically enjoys a healthy lead over the left, there’s no guarantee this will continue. Crime rates are ticking up, and there’s anecdotal constituency evidence that it’s becoming a greater concern in constituencies, particularly in London, having dropped down the public’s list of priorities in recent years.
In recent times, the Centre-Right and the Conservative Party have gone on what might euphemistically called “a journey” on crime and justice – with a much greater emphasis on things like alternatives to prison and on rehabilitation, and much less of an emphasis on crime fighting and firm justice. This shift has taken the Party away from voters’ preferred approach, and there’s a danger that an uptick in crime amid this shift will erode the Party’s lead on the issue and remove another obstacle that stands in front of a vote for Labour. The centre right needs to return to the “broken windows” philosophy that it explored enthusiastically a decade ago, but developing policies that are right for the late 2010s.
The third big area is quality of life in retirement. There’s a mismatch here in what the polls suggest – which is that it’s not an issue of primary concern, and what the focus groups suggest – which is that it’s an area of huge emotional and financial concern. The explosion of public interest in the issue of social care suggests that the focus groups are right. The Centre-Right should look at social care, but also the apparently boring and complex issues of pensions and pensioner benefits. These are issues of immediate concern for those in or entering retirement age but there live issues for the public too.
The fourth big area is economic life in provincial England. The Government’s new industrial strategy white paper will be published shortly, probably before the Budget. The Centre-Right should use this as the beginning of deep policy work into improving economic life outside the prosperous South East. Encouragingly, this looks set to be a big part of Neil O’Brien’s venture, who has previously driven centre right policy thinking on the Northern Powerhouse. The centre right needs a non-statist, viable retail offer for the country’s suburbs and large towns.
Much has been made of the public’s growing scepticism of the free market and of big business. We can overstate this. The public is not engaged in an existential conversation around these issues and they rarely spontaneously come up in focus groups. The Centre-Right ought to be focused on those areas that the public really care about and where they can meaningfully offer useful policy ideas.