Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Electoral offers must be authentic and give something our opponents cannot
Much Conservative thinking is currently focusing on ideas and policies to appeal to voters, after a disastrous manifesto sent our 2017 election campaign into meltdown. Without the electoral Brexit firewall (seven in ten of our 2017 voters were excited about Brexit), we would probably have been unable to form a Government. But the failure of the manifesto reflected a deeper problem – for what and who do the Conservatives stand for?
Labour’s Manifesto appealed through nationalisation, more spending, and support for working people. But even where policies were missing, they could mobilise people who saw Jeremy Corbyn’s party as on their side. For example, although Labour did not pledge explicitly to reverse cuts to working age welfare, those voters believed (probably rightly) that Corbyn would ditch the cuts.
By contrast, our flagship social care policy attacked the vast majority of people’s understanding of social care as an extension of health care (as Jeremy Hunt’s new title makes clear). Just as they would not expect to pay for chronic sickness, voters do not think they should be asked to pick up the cost of care relating to debilitating old age, and they did not care the proposals were, strictly speaking, ‘progressive’, in that they took most from the wealthiest. The rejection of the social care proposals were a victory for conservatives who argue fairness is not the same as asking the rich to pay the most. This insight will be key in fighting Labour: the British public have an instinctive view that ‘you should get what you give’ – which his socialism cannot account for.
The social care proposals also mistook how you put together a winning coalition. People vote for you because you offer them something that the other side cannot match, not because you are penalising others (or them). And what you are offering must be part of a coherent whole, genuinely rooted in your approach and philosophy, or it will unsettle your existing voters while not being trusted by potential supporters. Private polling during the run-up to the 2015 election showed that extending Right to Buy did not gain huge support from the general public. But many housing association tenants strongly supported it, and it was also seen as part of a wider Tory commitment to home ownership. In effect, it might not have gained tepid universal support, but it created a positive framing effect and gained votes among parts of the electorate hard to reach with a traditional offer.
We need to nurture our supporters and outriders
The 2017 Manifesto abandoned so many of our supporters. The Conservative Party used to be the party of home ownership, small businesses, consumers, the army and much more. In addition, it had counter-intuitive outriders who supported our approach in the public sector and even the trade unions – in 1979, Margaret Thatcher won over a third of all trade unionist votes.
Philip Hammond’s National Insurance row last year was a typical example of the Conservatives being too quick to bash their supporters. It often ignores or even attacks its outriders, conservatively-minded people in unusual places, rather than seeking to find ways to support them. For example, some dismiss those engaged in public service as ‘a producer interest’ but to do so is counter-productive. We are not opposed to the public sector per se, but an inefficient and excessively large public sector – and effective public servants are our allies in this fight, not our opponents.
Brandon Lewis is an excellent choice as Chairman, having been a successful small businessman and councillor, to try to rebuild our sources of support. And he needs to do so – because the growth of social media makes such external voices and power bases even more important.
Social media makes external allies essential for victory
During the 1990s, Tony Blair would pick an issue and deliberately provoke the left of the Labour party through amending policy or making a controversial statement. The resulting hostility would be used in the mainstream media to show floating voters that Blair was a new type of Labour leader. Social media and the mainstream media’s decline makes such an approach redundant – if it ever worked for us at all. A policy row will now get mostly picked up online by those affected and interested, meaning that such an attack would be counterproductive. By contrast, an attractive offer is shared and supported online by those affected. Thus social media makes anchors of support even more crucial. In the new era, we cannot just be a hollowed-out shell propped up by big money.
Of overseas students and soldiers
Take two recent policy debates where we are getting it wrong. The Treasury is on manoeuvres yet again to try to cut the armed forces – albeit resisted by Gavin Williamson. In 2007 it was estimated that there were 3.7 million ex-service personnel in this country, roughly the same number as the BME voter base. Hard data is scanty, but in terms of seat patterns the military and ex-military appear a core part of our electoral alliance (I suspect this is particularly true if you adjust for income).
Meanwhile, if there could ever be said to be a Corbyn ‘core vote’ it would be in the higher education sector. Yet so many Tories want to spurn our own voters, who prioritise immigration control, by taking students out of immigration numbers. It is argued that this view has public support, but I suspect most people think of a handful of mathematical whizz-kid PhDs or Oxbridge students, not of 139,000 students coming to the UK in the most recent year alone.
Why should we support this change, given that parts of higher education are now, frankly, indoctrinators of left-wing attitudes. We have seen the fall of university seat after university seat to the Labour party – so why ignore our voters’ priorities to back a sector which is frankly actively hostile to us? We would be better off seeking voters in higher education by continuing the attempt that Jo Johnson made, as Universities Minister, to ensure that they are places of genuine debate, and reversing what is frankly a marginalisation of conservative thought and support from our higher education sector – supporting our outriders by requiring that universities support genuine intellectual plurality.
As the Conservative Party tries to move onto the front foot, it needs to support genuine allies – backing savers, home owners, small businesses, the army, and others, and extending our appeal by working out how it can apply its principles to new areas in order to draw those who are conservatively-minded to our coalition. That is how we can avoid both repeating the disaster of the 2017 Manifesto and the electoral losses it brought with it.