In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.
But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.
As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.
So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.
This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.
In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.
We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.
A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.
British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.
But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.
Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.
While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).
Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.
It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)
But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?
In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.
Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.
Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.