This weekly column strongly advocates that the Conservative Party drop the long Cameron experiment down a hole and focus relentlessly on improving the lives of the working class and lower middle class of provincial Britain. Theresa May started off down this route but has since run into the sand. You might therefore expect news of a new think tank being launched – backed by many that acted as cheerleaders for Cameron’s project – to draw some anticipatory criticism here. On the contrary, early signs coming out of Onward are encouraging and those that support a continued shift in the Party towards a more friendly approach to provincial Britain should monitor its progress with hope.
Firstly, its leadership has a track record of interest in the issues provincial Britain cares about. Will Tanner, Onward’s Director, was deputy head of the Number 10 policy unit under Theresa May during her pivot towards those “just about managing” and he is a long-time collaborator of Nick Timothy, who fully signs up to this agenda. Tanner’s early media in this role suggest that he’s focused on how to improve the lives of those outside London. Neil O’Brien, the driving force behind the new organisation, created the early concept of the Northern Powerhouse when he ran Policy Exchange and pushed ahead with it after in the Treasury and Number 10. Neither are remotely classic South-East-obsessed modernisers. Tanner suggests in a recent interview, one of the problems in politics is that so few people that work in it talk to real people. They know what fires up people at London dinner parties is mostly irrelevant to people in the industrial Midlands and North.
Secondly, it has chosen to focus on issues that cannot but have a disproportionate impact on provincial Britain. Productivity and slower wage growth aren’t the most glamorous subjects on earth but they’re fundamental to the interests of those that live outside the ultra-prosperous South East. Much of the country thinks the economy is doing “fine” but they won’t keep voting for “fine” if there’s an attractive alternative model that offers them “great”.
The application of tech and AI sounds niche in the extreme but will also deeply affect the fortunes of those living in provincial Britain: while the sector’s growth will be anchored in the South, those living in the provinces will be deeply concerned how their jobs and livelihoods will change as robots and algorithms start doing work traditionally done by ordinary people. And housing, too, is now an issue that reaches well outside the South East.
There is no doubt that much of the media will be encouraging Onward towards an early-2000s, now highly dated, “modernising” agenda. Some of their board will be encouraging the same. Conservatives saying radical and counter-intuitive things is a simple sell. It will be easy to fall back on an agenda which focuses on the poorest voters and the lives of those in the centre of the country’s biggest cities, as it will be a path of little or no resistance.
While such issues are important morally, and indeed electorally, it remains true that the great battlegrounds for the next five to ten years are the towns and suburbs of provincial Britain, where the people aren’t poor but are struggling to secure and maintain middle class status. These are people more worried about having enough money for house improvements after they’ve paid their mortgage than about public transport, and people more worried about the quality of their local hospital than about plastic waste.
We look forward to Onward’s first publications.