Let’s assume an election soon. While the Conservatives are surely finished if they don’t go into the campaign as the clear choice for Brexit voters, this won’t be enough to secure a majority. The next election will not be a re-run of the referendum: people will be make their final decision on a broad range of issues. It’ll fundamentally be like any other election.
Last time around, the Conservatives slipped up badly with prospective voters. This has been endlessly discussed but three mistakes still stand out: firstly, they made no effort to own the “change” narrative even though public demands for change must have been clearly audible in their focus groups; secondly, they angered vast numbers of people by suggesting those that had lived a careful and modest life – owning a house with savings – should be punished with massive social care costs; and, thirdly, the threat to raise people’s taxes was mad. Brexit aside, there was comparatively little to attract working class and lower middle class swing voters – which explains the party’s patchy performance amongst them.
Politics is so volatile it’s hard to predict where the Conservatives’ relative strengths and weaknesses will be in a week, let alone two months. As I write, the weakness of Corbyn’s Labour and the lack of a powerful and credible anti-Brexit party means the prospects for the Conservatives look good. However, the Party still has vulnerabilities it must address fast. I won’t dwell on the obvious – like the NHS (and the text on that bus) – and instead look at those areas that haven’t received the political attention they deserve. And I’ll look at vulnerabilities amongst the working class and lower middle class of provincial England – who the Party needs to turn out in massive numbers and where this column has always focused.
Everyday life in England’s towns. In focus groups I’ve moderated in recent times, I’ve been struck by how people across provincial England are in despair about the state and prospects of their towns and suburbs. We’re a country that enjoys self-deprecation about our own backyards. But pessimism has intensified recently. People have come to terms with industrial decline as time has passed, but bad memories are returning now they’re witnessing the rapid decline of their town centres – as shops, pubs and services close, as anti-social behaviour and crime increase, as aggressive begging comes to small towns from cities, as visible drug use rises, and as more and more kids leave school and college with few local career prospects.
The Conservatives recently pledged new funds to support British high streets. This shows they’re hearing something. But they need to be careful not to misread or underplay what’s really being said. People don’t look at their town centres and just think: “we need more shops”; in fact, many people think high street shops are a rip-off, open at stupidly inconvenient times, and have a tiny range of interesting or useful goods. Rather, above all, the residents of these towns want to feel like they live in a proper community. They want safe and clean streets, integrated populations, free and cheap leisure facilities and parks, buzzing high streets and nice, affordable local pubs. The question the Conservatives need to answer is not “how do you save the high street?”, but “how do you improve everyday life in provincial towns?” It’s a completely different question. (And the Party’s approach to crime should be framed partly through improving communities, not just, say, dealing with serious violence).
People know the answer does not lie in simply throwing huge amounts of cash at these places. But, in the absence of ideas, the Conservatives are highly vulnerable to a Labour offer of vast new spending on things like public transport, libraries, parks, leisure centres, social housing, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation programmes, community integration programmes, youth clubs, CCTV, policing and security guards and so on. The Conservatives need to think about the challenges of living happily in these towns, not narrowly around simply more shops or more police.
The party of the rich. When the audiences we’re thinking about here are asked about the Conservatives, one thing always comes up: “they’re the party of the rich, while Labour are the party of the working class”. This perception has been widespread for years, and the recent defection of working class voters from Labour to the Conservatives has barely changed this fact. Boris Johnson’s only mis-step in his leadership campaign was to give disproportionate attention to tax paid by higher earners and he is lucky this was barely noticed by the electorate. The Conservatives need to ensure they do everything possible to avoid looking like they’re a party of the rich, for the rich. (Incidentally, it doesn’t matter necessarily that Boris Johnson is rich and posh).
What does this mean in practice? A few obvious ones, which they surely won’t get wrong: target tax cuts on working class and lower middle class voters and don’t talk about helping higher earners; don’t ever talk about the benefits of private education; and ensure there are enough spokespeople from ordinary backgrounds.
But there are some less obvious ones, too: don’t focus economic and social policies purely on the poorest, which sends the message to working class and lower middle class audiences that they in turn must be rich; be careful about how you talk about aspiration, which can seem you’re saying their lives are substandard; and carve out some specific tax cuts directly targeted on the lives of working class and lower middle class voters (tax is really rising up the public’s list of priorities, incidentally, which I will write about in more detail here soon).
Education for all. (I should point out that my agency Public First has worked for many clients in the education world. Here, our work for Pearson and Universities UK is relevant.) The Conservatives’ reputation as the party of the rich is usually undeserved, but there are times, because relatively few of their senior team come from ordinary backgrounds, where they unintentionally make it look like they live on another planet. Two issues stand out, one specific and one general.
Firstly, in an act of breath-taking political stupidity, the Department for Education is consulting on the de-funding of the best known and respected vocational qualification, the BTEC. To be clear, this would mean telling the vast numbers of young people currently studying for BTECs that their courses are essentially worthless and introducing a new system that would make many of their chosen careers impossible. (James Kirkup of the Social Market Foundation wrote about this for the Spectator recently). Secondly, more generally, the Party still gives off the sense that it considers the expansion of universities to have been a mistake and that most students of newer universities are wasting their time.
The Conservatives should certainly be promoting academic excellence and indeed elite education where appropriate. In fact, I believe they should do this far more explicitly than they ever have done. But this does not mean they should not be promoting education for all – high quality education for those with differing interests and with different levels of academic ability. They should be on the side of educational progress and achievement full stop. Working class and lower middle class audiences will not mind if the Government promotes elite education for those that will thrive in such institutions (they have no hostility to these people) but they will mind if it looks like the Party wilfully opposes or misunderstands those institutions and courses that enable them to improve their children’s lives. (Personally, I would have focused on this way more than on things like teachers’ pay, which never comes up amongst ordinary voters).
Rewarding hard work. Over the last decade, and particularly under George Osborne’s time as Chancellor, the Conservatives began to establish a lead over Labour as the party that rewarded hard work. In focus groups I’ve run in the last few years, working class and lower middle class voters have consistently fumed at Labour’s excessively generous attitude to welfare and talked positively about Conservative welfare reforms (yes, including Universal Credit). Such is the strength of feeling on this issue, the Conservatives emphatically must not consider their lead secure and their reforms effectively banked with the public. And they must not confuse media criticism of UC with public opposition; the two are different. They must look at how to double down on their recent progress and take this further. The most obvious place to look is at introducing a much greater contributory element to the welfare state (another declaration of interest: Public First is working for the Centre for Policy Studies on creating such a system).
Ownership of the change narrative. Last time around, it seems likely that the Conservatives underplayed the change narrative because Theresa May was a new Prime Minister that theoretically embodied change. That wasn’t enough and it won’t be enough for the Conservatives this time around. Boris Johnson is seen as a different sort of politician and his early start has sent shockwaves through the political system. But, again, it’s vital that the Conservatives keep up the pace. Johnson has been around now on the frontline of British politics for over a decade and the Conservatives have been in power for nearly a decade. Many of their most visible politicians have also been around a long time. As a Government and Party, they look comparatively new but not absolutely so. They should be rolling out new faces consistently in coming weeks. Their general rhetoric – and how they package both fights and positive announcements – should focus on how they’re changing the political system as we know it. Before I bored everyone to death about the importance of lower middle class and working class voters, I used to bore people about the need to harness anti-politics as a force for change. Now is the time to do this in earnest.
In very difficult circumstances over the last few weeks, Johnson’s Government has not put a foot wrong politically. His team know the path to political and electoral success is extremely narrow, though, and it will be hard to deliver. In the next few weeks they’ll need to raise their game even further.