Lord Finkelstein has been at the heart of debates about the future of the Conservative Party for two decades. A leading figure in the Party’s “modernising” shift in the early 2000s, his voice still carries weight – not least as Chairman of the new Onward think tank. His Times column last week – which explored why Trump has been mostly successful electorally in the US – argued the following: “Appealing more to white voters who are poorer, older and more culturally conservative may change the electoral map, but, unlike with Trump in 2016, not in the Conservatives’ favour. The party would lose marginal seats in prosperous areas while increasing the vote in safe Labour seats it can’t win. In addition, as the country is becoming more liberal, more urban and more diverse, it would be foolish for the Conservatives to become less of each of these things.”
Is he right? Certainly yes about the need to appeal to a diverse electorate in a multicultural Britain (which the vast majority of voters are rightly comfortable with). But what about the rest? We must ask four big questions. Firstly, what is the nature of the seats the Conservatives have a chance of taking? Secondly, what campaign issues would most likely appeal to voters in these seats? Thirdly, are these seats viable long-term Conservative holds (ie once Brexit is settled)? And, fourthly, is it possible to craft a campaign for these voters that has broader, national appeal – rather than alienating those that currently vote Conservative?
Let’s look at the Conservatives’ target seats to begin with – ones where there is a realistic chance of taking them. Looking at the top 100 Conservative targets, where a swing of around eight per cent or less is needed, the vast majority are Labour-held. Of these seats, there are clearly some that fall into the affluent and/or urban category he describes. These include, for example, Kensington, Twickenham, and Oxford West. There are 27 seats where the median weekly wage is higher than the national median wage (of £570). However, on this list of target seats there are 73 where the median wage is at, or lower, than the national median. These include, for example, Bassetlaw, Bishop Auckland, Bolton North East and North West, Burnley, Bury North and South, Darlington, Dudley North, Newcastle under Lyme and Scunthorpe. Some of these average and less affluent seats are in cities, and some are in London. Some are highly diverse. But relatively few of them fit into the sorts of seats he describes as essentially being Labour-held no-hopers – and relatively few that are affluent liberal strongholds.
He is on stronger ground with his concerns about seats the Conservatives are defending. They include places like Finchley and Golders Green, Harrow West, Watford, Hendon and Wimbledon. But, again, they’re a mixed bag. They also include Broxtowe, Stoke-on-Trent South, Bolton West, Telford, Mansfield, Walsall North, Erewash and Sherwood. The Conservatives cannot just dump affluent suburbs and become a working class party. But on the basis of targets to attack and defend, it makes no sense to try to reboot Cameronism.
Let’s look now at the sort of campaign themes that might appeal to these average and less affluent voters. Like it or not, they are more likely to have voted Leave, of course. Furthermore, these voters are more likely to say that immigration, law and order, housing and welfare are top issues for them. They are probably reasonably described as small-c conservatives, as Finkelstein suggests, although they aren’t classic big-C Conservatives. They remain permanently strong supporters of the NHS and don’t back conventional ideas of a small state (much as they distrust politicians). There’s no denying that they would respond better to the sort of campaign that Finkelstein worries about.
Which brings us to the final two questions: are they temporary supporters? And can the Conservatives craft a campaign that prevents the defection of existing supporters?
On the first of these questions, it’s impossible to say for sure but the answer appears to be: not necessarily; in fact, they could be permanent supporters. Many of them have clearly come over to the Conservative Party because they assume the Conservatives support Brexit and Labour does not. However, disaffection with Labour seems fundamental. As I have written many times here, lots of Labour’s traditional working class supporters feel let down by Labour over their perceived weakness on issues like crime, border control and welfare reform. They also consider themselves to be simple patriots, and they find much of Corbyn’s past support for things like Irish Republicanism hard to stomach. And they don’t believe that Labour helped to spread affluence across the country when they were in power. It would be too much – far too much – to suggest the Conservatives have locked these voters down, but they are in contention.
Finally, I strongly believe that the Conservatives can create a campaign that appeals both to voters in these Labour-held seats, as well as to those voters in the vast majority of those they still hold. While the Conservatives’ campaign came unstuck at the last election, it’s easy to forget that Theresa May’s early campaigning as Prime Minister was extremely successful – helping to establish massive leads over Labour. She was always clear about Brexit, even as a Remain voter and campaigner. She didn’t revel in Brexit and ram it down Remainers’ throats. Her approach fused traditional Conservatism with a direct appeal to the sorts of working class and lower middle class voters that fill the sorts of target seats highlighted above. Furthermore, to a large extent, there are regular, encouraging flashes of this sort of successful campaigning now – with the focus on tougher messages on law and order, with more spending for the NHS, and so on.
Finkelstein can’t be right that there is no mileage in going after small-c conservatives in Labour seats. This is surely the best place to look for new supporters and new seats. I also don’t believe that a campaign should necessarily alienate most existing supporters. However, I do agree that such an approach is probably incompatible with an appeal to those urban, very liberal (almost in the American sense of the term) voters that self-consciously define in this way. I just happen to think that there are relatively small numbers of these voters that define themselves aggressively like this – and I fear that most are lost to the likes of Jeremy Corbyn anyway.