Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow.
It feels like I’ve woken up from a dream. Not a White Christmas, but a sea of blue-collar, spanning the length and breadth of the country, on the electoral map. For many years as MP, I’ve been campaigning for us to be the “Workers’ Party” – the representatives of blue-collar men and women up and down the country. In Essex, we use the term, “white-van conservatism”.
It is extraordinary to think that this dream has been realised by the election of MPs from all over the country, from Bishop Auckland, to my own constituency of Harlow.
Of course, the narrative from the Corbynites is that their catastrophic performance is because of Brexit. But, if you look at long-term trends, Labour have been losing the vote of working people for a number of years. The Labour movement is seen as an enemy of aspiration. In my own constituency, the Labour vote has not veered from 30 to 38 percent since 2010. Having said that, the results this time around were remarkable.
We have a real chance to fundamentally change our Party for the better. As the Prime Minister said, many people have lent us their vote, and they won’t be so generous next time if we get it wrong.
The Conservative Party must take this opportunity to become the true Workers’ Party.
That means, first, being incredibly careful with our narrative and language, and ensuring that we’re seen as the party of the ladder of opportunity and the safety net.
We should be modest, humble and kind in all our dealings with the public. Real thought and care about our language must be taken at all times, but particularly when we face the media, to ensure that Tories don’t come over as heartless or lacking emotional intelligence. Too often, we’ve allowed ourselves to be seen as out of touch and not on the side of people who are struggling. Each of us has a role to play, individually, to change this perception.
Second, let us show that we Conservatives have a real passion for our public services and are just as proud of increased funding for the NHS – as we are of the necessary tax breaks for small businesses – which we know increases investment and employment opportunities.
Third, we have to be relentless about cutting the cost of living. Lowering taxes is a moral good. We must convey that it is not all about helping rich people in the city or tycoons. This means, as the Manifesto pledged, focusing on cutting taxes for the lower paid by continuing to reduce income tax and making increases to the National Living wage a priority.
But we shouldn’t just cut taxes for lower earners, we need to ensure they know about it. On wage slips, for example, the Treasury should set out exactly how much the Government is saving taxpayers. The wage slip should read: “Your tax bill would normally be £X, but the Conservative Government has discounted it to £Y, saving you £Z.”
A simple, practical mechanism to ensure that workers on lower incomes know that it is Conservatives that are cutting their tax bill.
So, too, should the fuel duty freeze continue – again, as mentioned by the Prime Minister in the campaign. More action needs to be taken to improve Universal Credit so that its purpose of eliminating the poverty trap finally becomes a reality.
Fourth, many working people in communities that have now voted Conservative are passionate about apprenticeship opportunities for their children. Our vocational and technical education reforms should be at the forefront of policy for our Education Secretary. Every single young person should have the offer of a high-quality apprenticeship – right through from Level 2, up to degree-level. Conservatives should aim for 50 per cent of students to take up degree apprenticeships.
Conservatives must come good on school funding and continue to provide as much parental choice of schools as possible and do everything to improve standards of reading and numeracy. Skills, Standards, Social Justice and Support for the profession should be the four s’s mantra of our education policy.
Fifth, it is high time we deal with the lack of housing in this country. We have to be bold and build hundreds of thousands more houses, recognising that 90 percent of land is not yet built on. It cannot just be about schemes like Right to Buy and Help to Buy, great though they are, but also about real affordable housing that people can rent.
Sixth and finally, whatever happens, as well as being the Workers’ Party, Tories must be a movement for social justice, too. Millions of our countrymen and women struggle everyday, whether it is a parent waiting for 39 weeks for their child to be diagnosed with a mental health issue, or people living in ghetto-type social housing, or individuals being sucked into a spiral of dependency on addictive drugs. We should do more to combat abusive relationships and domestic violence, too.
Conservatives must be the Party for these people as much as those who are already climbing the ladder of opportunity. Our job is to bring people to the ladder, to help them climb up and be ready with a safety net should they fall. The Party that enables and strengthens social capital, as much as economic capital.