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James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. 

Signs are emerging that modernisers responsible for the Conservatives’ strategic miscalculation in the mid-2000s are recommending the same course of action now. They’re set to use the likely terrible performance of the Party in London, particularly amongst the young, to argue the Party should return to a self-consciously metropolitan political offer reminiscent of early Cameron.

As was true in the mid-2000s, the modernisers are on to something. There’s no doubt the electorate is changing in important ways. It’s becoming more racially diverse, nominally better educated as more people enter higher education, more urban, and socially more liberal. All this means, absolutely, there’s little future in the Conservative Party obsessing about immigration, or bemoaning social change and acting as a socially conservative force to oppose it.

But there’s a problem with the modernisers’ worldview: hardly anyone in the party centrally thinks this hard-right approach offers a viable political future – not morally, not politically, not tactically. (Although, admittedly, the Havering leaflet that caused such controversy reflects the fact some people might use such an approach locally, which is a mistake).  Continuity modernisers are therefore building up a straw man. The opposition movement they think they’re creating – apparently in response to a shift towards provincial populism – isn’t an opposition movement at all. Rather, the movement is a proactive one, borne of ideological zeal to focus the Conservative Party on niche metropolitan issues they personally care about.

Will Heaven’s Spectator piece last week set out the battleground perfectly. Modernisers are said to be in despair about Theresa May’s provincialism – almost as if this was the same as Trumpian populism. And we’re introduced to the idea of “Londonisation” – where young, socially liberal people move out of London to the suburbs and make them more metropolitan in outlook. The lesson is clear: metropolitan values are growing, provincial values are shrinking (someone soon will draw a comparison with Virginia, no doubt).

People have conveniently forgotten the electoral reality of Theresa May’s early months in power. She didn’t inch ahead when she took over; she secured a 20 point lead over Labour by shifting away from Cameron’s narrow metropolitanism towards a pragmatic vision for the working class and lower middle class of provincial Britain. She secured early broad support by having important things to say about the economy outside the South East and about the need to improve education across the country. She allied herself with the working class and lower middle class by talking about the concerns of those “just about managing”.

In short, Theresa May initially took the party into mainstream politics for the first time in years. David Cameron struggled to beat a comically inept Gordon Brown in 2010 and only struggled over the line in 2015 with a last minute campaign masterminded by Lynton Crosby that focused on ordinary people. The fact the 2017 campaign was a fiasco doesn’t prove anything other than bad campaigns don’t secure victory. Her early strategy was the right one (and there have been signs, particularly with the recent focus on the NHS, that May is returning to the fundamentals of this approach).

As is so often the case, London-based modernisers effectively attribute the provincial working class and lower middle class with unpleasant, hard-right views – and those that attempt to court them with the same characteristics. Provincial Britain emphatically does not support a hard-right agenda and, as I’ve described on many occasions here, hold a mix of right-leaning and left-leaning views: they’re eye-wateringly tough on crime; they’re socialists on the health service. None of them are centrists.

Above all, provincial British voters want to hear about improving the NHS, boosting jobs and growth, keeping the cost of living down, accessing good schools, and cutting crime. They want to be assured that their political leaders aren’t racist or judgemental or stuck in a 1950s parody, but they aren’t interested in hearing about these ideas primarily. This was the modernisers great mistake in the mid-2000s; they spent so much time showing they were nice people they had very few practical ideas to sell. And this is the problem now.

67 comments for: James Frayne: The local elections – and why London modernisation won’t work for provincial Britain

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