James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
The Conservative Party is understandably overwhelmingly focused on meeting immediate policy and campaign challenges posed by Brexit, Labour’s stubborn poll numbers and the possibility of an early election. As such, worrying about long-term cultural and structural changes that could pose challenges in future elections might seem a luxury. However, politics increasingly resembles culture war as the left chooses to self-define in the manner of the vanguard of the American liberal left. In this climate, cultural and structural changes take on real, near-term importance. Here are four that appear most immediate.
1. UKIP’s shift to toxic politics. I recognise I’m in a minority here but in the past, I’ve generally regarded UKIP as a net-positive for the centre right – mainly because I viewed UKIP as a useful way of attracting Conservative-sceptic, traditional working class voters towards the centre right. People whose families might not have voted Conservative in generations clearly felt more comfortable voting UKIP – and then more comfortable voting Conservative once the Labour-voting habit was broken. This judgement was based on the view that UKIP was ultimately a respectable party. Not to downplay the problem, it clearly always had a minority of unpleasant and extreme supporters and activists but, for the most part, it operated within the bounds of mainstream political discourse. It was a relatively easy jump – politically and culturally – between UKIP and the Conservative Party. Under Gerard Batten, this is no longer the case. It has crossed the line into being an unpleasant, European-style populist party which respectable people should no longer vote for and it can no longer be credibly seen as any sort of ally of the Conservative Party or the wider conservative movement. There is now a less obvious path for voters to move from Labour to the Conservative Party.
2. The Daily Mail’s likely cultural shift. All the signs are that the Daily Mail is set for a major shift in political and cultural tone in the coming years. Under Paul Dacre, like it or not, the Mail reflected and amplified the authentic voice of ordinary lower middle-class England – and in turn helped to form that voice. But it appears the owners have tired of the Mail’s combative nature and the hostility it derives from the London Upper Middle Class. Geordie Greig’s appointment appears to be a result of this shift from the ownership, not the cause of the shift. In a cultural battle with the new left, The Daily Mail ought to have been the most important weapon in the arsenal of the centre-right but it no longer looks as though it can be relied upon. Time will tell but it’s not clear raw sales figures will decide on their overall approach.
3. The Guardian’s massive new influence. Not so long ago, those of us on the centre right might have been irritated by The Guardian, but we told ourselves that “no one read it”. What a change. The Guardian has turned itself into a vehicle of massive public influence. The Guardian is now the second most-read newspaper in the UK – a huge change over the last 20 years. According to the most recent Ofcom News Consumption Survey (2018), it has 8.01 million weekly readers for print and digital combined, compared with 9.4 million for the Daily Mail and Mail Online combined. This is, of course, because it has invested so heavily online. And with the massive growth in readership has come a radical shift in tone; the paper always leaned left, of course, but it now churns out vast amounts of highly-charged, American-style aggressive liberal content. I’m now starting to see the results of this in focus groups, where young people in particular are starting to repeat some of these talking points on a regular basis.
4. The lack of a Conservative grassroots. The Labour Party is paying the price for such huge and active grassroots – with the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the takeover of the party by the hard left. But there are benefits too: the Labour movement’s grassroots are able to apply pressure online on an array of issues to change the way the media report those issues, or to change the behaviour of less robust players in the debate. Think of how they’ve applied pressure on businesses to stop advertising in places like the Mail. The centre-right has no equivalent. It might make it less likely that the Conservatives will be lumbered with someone like Corbyn, which is no small thing, but it makes it difficult to match Labour in the ongoing culture war.
It’s not all bad news, of course. The centre right’s think tanks are in a good place; there’s an emerging politically savvy libertarian movement amongst younger voters; and Brexit continues to offer the Conservatives opportunities to detach the working class from Labour (although not for much longer). But when you look at the likely battleground for the next few years, it feels like the centre right is in a more difficult place.