Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
What is the longest stick that Labour continue to beat Conservatives with? What’s perhaps the biggest problem that Conservatives face in connecting with the public? The answer is relatively simple. The solution is much harder.
The fact is that Labour’s biggest USP (unique selling point) is our NUSP (negative USP): social justice. Unfairly, perhaps – but predominantly the public continue not to believe that Conservatives are on the side of the little guy, or that Tories care about those on lower incomes, or from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Conservatives don’t need even one of Lord Ashcroft’s famous polls to tell us this, because in our heart of hearts most fair-minded Conservatives know that this is how we are perceived.
There are three reasons for this.
First, because social justice has always been Labour’s raison d’être. They raise it time and time again – we may not agree with their solutions, but the fact is they never stop mentioning it. The left has also been quite ruthless and effective in ensuring that Conservatives are painted in the manner of Ebenezer Scrooge, rather than David Copperfield.
Second, because the Conservatives are inevitably the ‘Economics Party’ – usually having to repair a broken economy (after a Labour government) – it usually falls to a Conservative Prime Minister to make very painful decisions about public spending.
Third, because Conservatives are adept at falling into social justice elephant traps of our own making, (like charging people on welfare premier rates to call the Universal Credit hotline, for example), and only retreating after there has been a public outcry.
If we get one thing right in 2018, with a newly reshuffled pack in Government and in CCHQ, we need to reclaim the mantle of social justice as our own, to show the public that we are compassionate as well as Conservative and not allow Labour to have this field all to themselves.
Of course, there are Conservatives who say that this is unnecessary. Occasionally, a few Tories say: “We should not worry about this, Labour will always win on social justice and the NHS. We should concentrate on the things we are strong at, like lower taxes, supporting small businesses and the like.”
The response to this is clear: few Conservatives are against any of these things – a belief in lower taxes is in our DNA.
But not only should Tories frame these ‘goodies’ in terms of social justice, we should not be so willing to hold up the white flag of surrender when it comes to standing up for social capital as much as economic capital. It was Tony Blair who successfully took on what was then one of the Tories strongest cards – law and order. It was David Cameron who – in opposition at least – managed to ensure that Conservatives were at level-pegging with Labour on the NHS.
So, apart from transforming our language and communication, here are three things Conservatives could do to start reclaiming the mantle of social justice as our own.
First, use the resignation of the Social Mobility Commissioners to set up a new Social Justice Unit at the heart of Downing Street, run by organisations like Iain Duncan’s Smith Centre for Social Justice and the Sutton Trust. Its role would be not just to advice on social justice policy, but to assess the impact of all domestic legislation on social justice.
Second, set up a Social Justice Rebuttal Unit at CCHQ. It would be separate from the main rebuttal/research dept, and would have one task: to ensure that every Conservative, in whatever position, was armed with social justice statistics and policy facts – on social media and elsewhere – both to rebut Labour attacks and proactively set the agenda. Despite the difficulties with austerity, there are plenty of things from cradle to grave that Conservatives can and should be proud of.
Finally, social justice at CCHQ should benefit all Conservatives. Rebooting our Candidate Bursary scheme – setting up bursaries for all would-be parliamentary and council candidates who would like to get involved in our party, but can’t do so because they come from disadvantaged circumstances. Offering special membership schemes for those on lower incomes, such as giving disadvantaged members travel expenses to visit CCHQ and go to conferences, or helping young apprentices with their public transport costs, or motorists with a fuel card to cut the cost of petrol. Proving, in short, that when we talk about social justice as a Party, we really mean it.