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For most of the last two decades, it’s become fashionable in Conservative circles to be rude about traditional core voters – as if they were to be endured rather than welcomed. Many in the Party have aspired to create a base of support that’s metropolitan and self-consciously modern. They’ve argued this is because such modern voters are growing in number and represent the electoral “future”. However, there’s always been a suspicion those arguing for such a change really just personally prefer these new target voters, finding them less embarrassing.
The case modernisers are more concerned about attracting the right sort of voters – rather than increasing the overall number of voters attracted by Conservative candidates – is strengthened by their reaction to the Conservatives’ recent success in the provincial Midlands and North. Over the last five years, the Conservatives have attracted large numbers of new voters from Labour’s working class base. Places that wouldn’t have looked twice at a Tory candidate now vote them into office. Instead of welcoming this shift – which could herald a historic realignment in British politics as the Conservatives hollow out Labour’s base – modernising voices publicly worry about the lack of progress amongst the affluent young.
For the modernisers, a major breakthrough into provincial England drives the Party away from the self-consciously modern Party they want above all else. Because while these new voters might hold progressive views on issues like taxation and public services (although their attitudes are complex), they assuredly do not hold progressive views on issues like crime, immigration (although again their views on this issue are complex) and, above all, the EU. In short, they’re culturally the wrong sort of voters.
And so it is that the reaction from many to the Conservatives’ showing in last week’s local elections has been muted to say the least. Given these provincial voters saved the Party’s bacon, you would expect senior figures to say and do whatever it takes to keep these new voters on side. Without them, the Party would have had a catastrophic night. And yet over the weekend, senior figures have rushed to further question the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU – something these voters care deeply about. Greg Clark effectively went into battle against them, suggesting Britain might seek the sort of deal with the EU that could irritate them in the extreme and turn them away from the Party. Every senior politician can choose the emphasis they put on prospective policies; the Business Secretary chose an emphasis at odds with those that voted Conservative the previous week.
Clark’s intervention is the latest in a long chain of comments and activities that suggest the Party isn’t comfortable with its provincial shift. While Theresa May initially presented herself as having a laser-like focus on the provincial lower middle class and working class, a disappointing early financial statement was followed by an election manifesto and broader policy platform that suggested that the Conservatives would raise people’s taxes, and take away key tenets of the welfare state they’d come to rely on. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has consistently refused to say she’d vote for Brexit given the chance again, and we occasionally read explicit concerns from senior Party figures that it is becoming too provincial.
In different circumstances, such events and comments would cause the Party massive problems with this group of voters. The fact they haven’t so far reflects the reality the Labour Party are now the enemy of many in provincial England. But the Conservative Party hasn’t locked these voters down – far from it. Many are voting Conservative for the first time and have little meaningful loyalty to the Party. They will desert the Party just as quickly as they found it if the Conservatives appear to betray them on Brexit, to create policies that don’t help them out, or simply refer to them in disparaging ways.
The provincial English working class and lower middle class are keeping this Government breathing. The Party needs to start showing them some more respect. Step one: clear up this mess on the Customs Union.