Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
David Cameron’s ‘modernisation’ of the Conservative Party is often maligned in Tory circles. At best, a vacuous PR exercise. At worst, a piece of dangerous metropolitan elitism that severed the link between the party’s core vote and its leadership.
I would argue something different. It was a critical piece of repositioning that helped us appeal to voters under the age of 45 and put us back into government. Another process of modernisation – albeit around very different issues and executed with more sensitivity – needs to take place again if we are to win a convincing majority next time.
Compiled at every election since October 1974, IPSOS Mori’s ‘How Britain voted’ tracker makes for instructive reading.
It’s a common cliche that Conservative voters have been steadily dying out as a wave of intergenerational unfairness hits. However, the tracker shows a more nuanced picture. Among 25-44 year olds our party almost matched Labour in 2015 and we beat them in 2010. In the elections of 1997, 2001, 2005 – and, yes, 2017 – we ran up double digit deficits.
It is clear why. From the mid-1990s to 2005, the Conservative Party found it difficult to shake the image of being the grumpy neighbour down the street. We couldn’t get past the sense that we didn’t understand modern Britain and the children of more recent times. We talked a lot about Maastricht, opposing the minimum wage, supporting fox hunting and defending Section 28. We did not talk a lot about things which resonated with a generation who were building their careers and starting their families. And we paid an electoral price.
Cameron’s leadership was no panacea. 2010 was no triumph and 2015 no crushing landslide; both elections were mediated through the era defining financial crisis of 2008. But the process of modernisation did lead the party to focus more squarely on issues relevant to voters under 45. With the foundation of sound economic management in place, we talked a lot about Help to Buy, apprenticeships, job creation, backing small businesses, schooling, childcare, and raising the personal allowance; coupled with a good offer for older voters too.
For both elections under Cameron’s leadership the party achieved an approximately seven per cent vote lead over Labour and, in 2015, our first majority in a generation. This reversal in fortune would not have been possible without the votes we put on in the 25 to 44 age bracket over the period. We cannot even begin to think about winning majorities without being competitive amongst people born in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
But sadly we are losing these people once again. And you can see the parallels with the grumpy neighbour of a generation ago. The process of withering and withdrawal happens in increments rather than quick flashes. But before you know it, it feels very real indeed.
This has happened for two reasons.
First, the misreading of the signal that the vote for Brexit (the product of a world-class but very simplistic campaign) was a legitimisation of our obsession about the microscopic details of our relationship with the EU. Rather than working to heal the inevitable cultural values divide with younger people after the vote, we have entrenched it by the tone and volume of our neuralgia. When you are worried about the funding for your child’s school, politicians look remote when they sound more interested in different models of tariff collection and acronym bingo on whether we should look more like Canada or Norway.
Second, since September 2015 we have retreated into a comfort zone borne of the belief that Jeremy Corbyn can’t possibly become Prime Minister.
Well, the last election was far too close for my liking. And even if Corbyn still carries a lot of baggage, I certainly wouldn’t fancy our chances right now against a Labour Party led by Emily Thornberry, Tom Watson, Keir Starmer or even John McDonnell.
So as party strategists contemplate the next few years, they need to start thinking once again about the ‘m’ word.
Modernisation this time should not be about drinking smoothies, hugging huskies, relocating to Shoreditch, taking off our ties and proclaiming our love of the Big Society. Modernisation should simply be about putting the Conservative Party squarely at the service of aspirant working families and their priorities – especially those outside of London. At the same time we need to treat our base of slightly older voters with respect, learning the lessons of UKIP’s rise out of Cameroon modernisation.
What does that mean in practice?
- Discipline when the Withdrawal Agreement is (God willing) put to bed and a general acceptance that it is time to get back onto the domestic agenda. The detailed contours of our future relationship with Europe may not be fully defined by March 29 next year. But the extent to which the transition period is elevated to a similar moment of blood and thunder is down to the choices we make.
- Intellectual clarity on what it means to be a Conservative in the modern world. Even if we are unlikely to talk about it explicitly on our leaflets, we cannot convince younger people to vote for us if we do not know what we believe. My own view is that the energetic reinvigoration of capitalism for the twenty-first century – preserving what is good but reforming what now needs to be updated – is the ground to build a winning electoral coalition without ceding ground to Labour.
- A retail policy offer that bring this intellectual clarity to life in personally relevant terms. The work underway from former colleagues of mine such as Will Tanner will be important here; the Chance to Buy policy unveiled last week is a good start.
- A leader who looks and sounds inherently comfortable with modern Britain and can convey a sense of that tomorrow will be better than today; something which Thatcher, Major (early on) and Cameron all managed to do in their different ways. This, rather than what you have said about Brexit in the past couple of years, should be the prism for any future leadership contest.
All of the above is firmly within the party’s grasp to achieve; the darkest hour is often just before the dawn. But no one should be any illusions of the gravity of the task ahead. Our current notional poll lead is fragile and soft. It is set on a trajectory that will not end well unless we have the courage to modernise once again.