The autumn sun was shining outside, but the mood was altogether gloomier inside ConservativeHome and British Future’s event “Future
Majority: Can the Conservatives win in a changing Britain?” – at least to start off with.
Chairman Ian Birrell’s hard-edged truths – for example, that only one-in-six ethnic minority voters backed the Conservatives at the last election – were immediately surpassed by the first panellist Margot James, MP for Stourbridge. “Without the boundary changes, it will be very difficult for this party to win an overall majority,” is how she put it. “We’re in danger of becoming a regional party of rural England, the South-East and suburbia.”
The root cause of this problem, as ConservativeHome editor and panellist Paul Goodman explained, is that the electorate is so diverse and divided. Now, more than ever, voters don’t just line up by class – factors such as age, gender, region and ethnicity also come into play. “People are culturally more differentiated. Pursuing one group of voters can leave you with problems with others.”
Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West, concentrated on one particular group of voters: ethnic minorities. As he described it, the problem is largely one of engagement. “My father always used to say that Margaret Thatcher was the first British Asian Prime Minister. The values that she espoused, such as working hard and home-ownership, are exactly the values that many people from ethnic minority backgrounds share” – yet they still don’t vote Conservative.
So, what can be done? The MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, Eric Ollerenshaw, was bubbling over with ideas, in this regard. In those areas, where these isn’t much Tory representation, such as the North, how about more day-to-day activity from “that strange creature called the MEP”? And why don’t those MPs with large majorities lend their time and experience to those who aren’t so fortunate?
All of the panelists agreed about the importance of local action. As Goodman put it, recalling his own time as an MP, “a lot of the work was having cups of tea, just listening to your constituents’ concerns”. Here, the example of the Conservative Party of Canada was cited approvingly. That party’s leadership made, in Sharma’s words, “a conscious decision that they would try and engage a lot more”. Its ministers are encouraged to visit communities and constituencies that, traditionally, may not have voted Conservative.
And what about how those ministers look, sound and act? According to James, “a lot of the people at the top of our party, and who advise our party, are drawn from too narrow a segment of society.” She continued: “I see an above-average preponderance of white men in their twenties and thirties who have always been in politics. I hope the Prime Minister will soldier on with his modernisation process.”
With all that said, Ollerenshaw hoped that it wouldn’t need saying again: “I do not want to attend next year’s conference and do another one of these events!” And so the morning ended with laughter, despite it all.