Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
The prospect of another general election inevitably brings back nightmares of the last. I know that elections can be a bit like being a parent – you either copy your own parents or try to do the opposite of what they would have done. But I do think there are some lessons to learn which should affect how Boris Johnson approaches policy and a campaign, and which have been relatively under-discussed.
When people say their top priorities are the NHS and schools they actually mean the NHS and schools
Most of us remember knocking on doors, being told to talk about strong and stable government, only to find voters wanted to talk about the NHS and schools. And many of them were visibly furious.
And that was before the manifesto arrived. Interestingly, I remember that the first comments on the manifesto from many in Westminster was how beautifully written, how intellectually coherent, how correct much of it was. Just as they have in the last couple of days, Westminster swung very rapidly from believing Theresa’s team were strategic geniuses to certified morons.
The Conservative Manifesto had a lot of things to say about fixing the broken private sector. It proposed interventions on tech companies, worker protections, energy price intervention. It was reasonably close to Ed Miliband, if not willing to go quite as far as Jeremy Corbyn.
This approach is increasingly part of Westminster convention. It flips everything the public complain about into commentary on a broken market system. When people say they’re unhappy with immigration, the response is ‘oh actually they mean they’re worried about being left behind in a globalised world.’ If they say they’re unhappy with school funding:‘oh actually they mean they don’t think their children will have lives better than theirs’.
What in the last few years – in fact until Johnson became Prime Minister – we have been terrible at is saying ‘if people say they think NHS funding is a disaster and there aren’t enough police maybe we should listen to them and fix those things. Specifically.’
The manifesto was a lot less compelling on the public sector than the private sector. That’s what I, at least, got asked about campaigning. On this I think Johnson has made an unequivocally strong start.
No one is sown up
I and a number of other candidates had a phone call early on in the campaign with a professional member of the team at Central Office. At one point she said ‘you have to understand: if Theresa May could personally stand and campaign in every seat in the country, she would win. You are Theresa May’s Conservative Party.’ (I am quoting from memory).
I don’t think most of the people working on the election would have sanctioned this claim – even in the early days when it looked like impossible seats might be won. But it is a reminder of how strong she seemed.
It is easy to see why – from their seemingly unassailable position in the polls going into the election – the Conservative 2017 manifesto was so focused on winning a mandate to make difficult decisions. Theresa May had been governing for several months and had been visibly frustrated by the constraints of the previous manifesto, written by her predecessor David Cameron. She wanted to have free rein when she won what seemed – then – like it would be a big majority.
And a slightly puritanical liking of difficult decisions and hard work was a big part of her public persona. As she said in the foreword to the manifesto “[These policies] do not offer a quick fix…it is the responsibility of leaders to be straight with people about the challenges ahead and the hard work required to overcome them.”
This assumes a reliance on a trust in politicians and parties that simply doesn’t exist. This is an opportunity – if you have the most attractive programme for voters you’re able to win them over – and a loss. You can’t assume they’ll just swallow bad news.
Fairness remains the central value for people and policy needs to reflect that
At one of my hustings I was asked by an 18-year-old boy why his granny was going to suffer so badly under our dementia tax proposals. It’s not fair, he said. So much for inter-generational war.
Why did the social care policy enrage people? Because it cut at their sense of fairness. If something terrible happens to me – to my health – through no fault of my own, my family suffers. Worse, if I’ve done the right thing and built up savings, I’ll be penalised more.
We’ve done a lot of work recently on welfare reform and this sense of fairness is unbelievably strong with voters. We shy away from moral judgements on people – with good reason: it’s hard to do it as a central state looking at millions of people’s lives. But people have no such issue. From their point of view, if you have worked hard and done the right thing you should be rewarded. If bad things happen to you – disability, or ill health – that you could not possibly have avoided, you should be looked after. It’s that simple.
From this, you get the inverse of the social care policy.
The new spending review has been all-but-ignored in a conversation about Brexit. The public care about leaving the EU. But they also care about health, schools, and fairness. This is a chance for the Conservatives to get the messages on those right.