Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
It’s true that Boris Johnson may be posh, that he went to Eton and that he likes quoting Pericles. But your background doesn’t matter if you’re actually relatable to white-van-men and women – and he does just that in spades.
I saw this for myself many years ago when I was in Golders Green in North London campaigning for Johnson to be Mayor (on a red bus, of course). Everyone – black, white, male, female, young and old – was rushing to see him and shake his hand. It is because of his ability to reach out to all people, wherever they came from, that he was such a successful London Mayor.
In Westminster, amongst Conservatives, we love to use the expression, One Nation which, in essence, means a compassionate, social justice Conservative. But, actually, to the man or woman in the street, it’s not a term that resonates. If we really want to appeal to working people across the land, we need more white-van workers’ Conservatism.
All across the world, politics is changing. People are moving away from the politics of technocracy and managerialism to the politics of authenticity and conviction. The same thing is happening in the UK.
The reason why Jeremy Corbyn (“Magic Grandpa”) and Nigel Farage are so appealing to their respective audiences is because the public see them as authentic and conviction politicians. They win support from millions of people, warts and all, because the electorate want public figures who say what they mean and stick by their principles, rather than sounding like a speak-your-weight-machine in Boots.
Authenticity is refreshing. It makes people feel comfortable, engaged and trusted. They feel a part of the conversation, rather than being talked down to and patronised.
Johnson has that conviction and authenticity and, now, he is embracing white-van, workers’ conservatism in both his narrative and his policies. He’s emphasised tax cuts for the lower paid, particularly in raising the national insurance threshold, which will help millions of low-income and disadvantaged workers. He also wants to reduce “sin taxes” on food: taxing McDonald’s milkshakes, and making food for working people more expensive, is not for him.
He understands that low-paid public sector workers have had it hard in recent times, with pay restraints for years because of the economic mess left by the last Labour Government. So, he’s right to say that these workers need to be helped with the cost of living. They are, after all, the guardians of our health, education and security.
Speaking on Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Johnson said: “I think education is the single most important thing that we Conservatives believe in. In the sense that it is the tool that every kid should have to make the most of their talents and their opportunities”.
He recognises that education helps people climb the ladder of opportunity, but is honest about the fact that, despite increases from the Government, education spending has not caught up with the needs of the nation. Therefore, his announcement to spend £4.6 billion on school funding is welcome.
My hope is that this cash boost will be accompanied by a Ten Year Strategic Plan and a Five-Year Funding Settlement for education, just as the NHS has a Long Term Plan (and an extra £20 billion by the end of 2024).
It’s always interesting that the centre-Left “commentariat” automatically assume that if someone believes in Brexit, they are either an arch-ideological, free-market, anti-state libertarian or, they’re “anti-immigrant”.
But, if any reasoned observer looks at Johnson’s legacy in London, it is far from being rooted in some ‘unthinking’, right-wing policy. He pushed for, and raised, the Living Wage. He cut homicide rates by 50 percent and transformed some of the bleakest parts of London. He championed measures against FGM and helped launch the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. He worked to eradicate hate crime in the capital and supported a number of initiatives to unify communities.
Given Johnson’s strong London links, it is refreshing that he spends much of his campaign stressing the importance of the Northern Powerhouse and building up Northern infrastructure – absolutely vital to transforming the economic well-being of our country.
So: tax cuts for the lower paid, protecting the National Living Wage, more funding for our schools and colleges, revitalising our nation’s infrastructure, delivering Brexit by 31st October – these are the things that will not only unify our nation, but also reinforce the Conservative claim to be the true workers’ Party. This is the kind of programme that will win the support of working white-van men and women across the country.
One final thought, on the subject of Boris’s favourite hero, not only did Pericles say “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it”, but he was also a social justice reformer and fierce proponent of democracy.
Pericles enacted legislation granting lower classes access to the political system and holding public offices. He bestowed generous wages on all citizens who undertook jury service and pressed for social integration, permitting the poor to attend the theatre for free.
We’re always told by the media that our Party members are very old, hardline and extremist. But, the ongoing hustings (available online, as I have been watching) show a very different picture. The audiences are packed out with young people and questions cover a broad range of subject areas – not just Brexit but, the economy, infrastructure and education.
These hustings have done us the power of good. Figures from Tim Bale show that average membership age is not as polarised as some may like to believe, with Conservatives at 59 and Labour at 52. We should be proud that we have 160,000 members now and proud of our diversity.