“The problem is this Government is so divisive”. I’ve heard this explanation a few times recently for the scale of hostile media attention and the ferocity of opposition online.
In one way, it’s an odd claim. The Government does, after all, command an 80-seat majority – and completely dominates the English political scene. How does such a demonstrably popular Government get criticised so widely for being divisive? Why does it matter? And what can it do to portray the reality of its popular support?
Let’s deal with the blindingly obvious first. This Government is driving through Brexit; changing immigration laws; and governing while Scottish independence is becoming more popular. The country was divided on Brexit on referendum day – and nothing has changed. Many Remainers’ anger is still raw and their hatred for the Prime Minister and other high profile Leavers drives an ongoing emotional reaction to everything this Government does. It’s hard to see that changing any time soon.
Immigration should be a different issue; but while a clear majority of the country wants immigration reduced, it’s by far the most controversial issue in the public domain and provokes huge sensitivities. As for Scotland, it’s fair to say a privately educated southern Englishman is hardly the perfect Prime Minister but, honestly ,what can be done about this? (Some will raise “competence” as a reason for division – on Coronavirus and exams etc – but I don’t think that’s a primary driver).
Yet there’s more to it than just the fact the Government has strong views on two contentious issues, while ultimately overseeing a further surge in support for the SNP.
One of the biggest problems is the fundamental lack of interest in politics amongst the Conservatives’ new core vote. The vast majority of the working class and lower middle class of provincial England are completely uninterested in politics. They’re not active in the parties; they don’t talk about politics in daily life; they don’t write to local or national newspapers; most importantly, they’re not politically active online.
In short, their views are almost never heard outside of elections, when they then dictate who goes into Downing Street. It therefore feels like the national political conversation – and by extension the reality of the national opinion – is dominated by noisy, politically-obsessed middle class activists.
The seeming lack of political importance of those in provincial England is exacerbated by the antipathy that many middle class Remainers have for them. As I’ve written before, it’s lucky that working class and lower middle class people don’t hear most of the political conversation as it shields them from this widespread contempt. Their portrayal is of poorly-educated, parochial English nationalists who do boring and precarious work. They’re portrayed as relics of an earlier age whose views will die out shortly, as they themselves die. There’s a clear sense that these voters don’t have moral authority and don’t matter.
And this takes us to another related point, which I’ll make only in passing despite its importance, simce others have made this point for years: all the main media outlets, and the vast majority of commentators, live in London and its cultural and physical satellites or in the country’s biggest cities. Those that choose and edit news output know very little about the towns and small cities of England or the people that live there. There is now no truly authentic provincial English media outlet.
Why does it matter if the Conservative Party is treated as the equivalent of an unelected dictatorship, particularly if the quiet mass of the public keeps voting for them? It matters for three related reasons.
Because it all infects media coverage and, even now, this matters over time. If everyone talks about this Government as being essentially illegitimate, it will affect public opinion more broadly (more on economic than cultural issues, I think).
Because it freaks out weak-minded backbenchers who spend too long on social media and who publicly panic about the Government’s reputation.
And because it makes the Government second-guess its own relative popularity and therefore its likelihood of getting big things done.
Ministers need to think about how to get on the front foot again – how to show the extent of its public support in order to boost its own moral standing and its ability to get things done. It needs to harness its provincial popularity – showing that these voters’ views are moderate, mainstream and strongly felt (all of which are true). How should it go about this? Each would be worth many blogs alone, but here are brief suggestions.
First, return at the earliest opportunity to improving the “liveability” of provincial towns. It’s impossible to criticise the Government for a loss of focus; Coronavirus changed everything very early in their new term. But they need to return to this soon. It’s not just about improving the economic prospects of these places; it’s also about making them nicer places to live. This means not just boosting town centres, but also working with local councils to improve public spaces, and reintroducing the festivals and events that have often withered and died. (This sounds like a small thing, but it’s huge for people). This will not only demonstrate to the country the provincial priorities of the Government, but it will also show these voters’ primary concern – not nationalism and all the rest, but enjoying a decent quality of family life.
Second, relatively easy to do, find a way to give a voice to the best of the new MPs. The Party has to demonstrate a different face and accent to show that it now represents new places and new people. They don’t all have to be promoted into Government; there are plenty of roles they can play – from being placed on task forces and policy research teams, to being given CCHQ roles. The Party should be reminding everyone through its spokespeople that it represents a new, mainstream majority.
Third, much more complicated to achieve and which I’ve written about before, seek to mobilise third parties from provincial England into policy debate. The Conservatives won many of these seats without any meaningful infrastructure in place. But they have to find a way to show they have support from outside standard political networks. Local businesses provide by far the easiest route to achieve this, but there are other networks too: non-state-funded voluntary organisations and charities; local societies; and so on.
Fourthly, continue to shift Government functions to outside central London.
Fifthly, not only continue to hold Cabinet meetings in provincial cities, but seek to make most policy announcements in these places too. This should demonstrate that the Government is making announcements from places where it commands support. The Party has become very accomplished at the visuals for such events and it has learned much from the referendum campaign. They should be able to do this relatively easily.
The Conservatives should become a primarily provincial party as they were in the past. That truly does not mean some sort of UKIP-lite party or something that looks and feels like a European populist party. Voters in these places are on the whole much, much more moderate than those in the big cities. While there are fewer people who are what you might call “modern liberals”, there are also far fewer who have extreme views. The party needs to show once and for all that the big cities have no monopoly on decency.