Margaret Thatcher kept her grip on the Conservative core vote with one hand while reaching out to new voters with the other – the new homeowners and share buyers who were brought into her election coalition by council house sales and rising living standards.
David Cameron has lost part of the Tory base to UKIP. The merit of Lynton Crosby is that he has brought to Downing Street and CCHQ a clarity, discipline and focus that it previously lacked. Boiled down to essentials, the Conservative campaign in May will have a three-part message about security, the economy and risk. Cameron is providing security. This can keep recovery going. Miliband would put it at risk.
So the message runs. It is pitched at those UKIP defectors – especially in the 40/40 seats that hold the key to the election’s outcome – and others in the northern and midlands marginals. The member of Cameron’s circle who grasps it best is George Osborne, with his instinct for drawing dividing lines (such as the benefits cap) and quest for more welfare savings.
This is a striking improvement on what was in place pre-Crosby and post-Andy Coulson. It is as close to a conservatism for Bolton West as voters are going to get under Cameron’s leadership. It may or may not do the trick in May, and allow him to return to Downing Street as Prime Minister. But what it does not do is what Thatcher did – win new voters while not losing old ones.
Many of those new voters of the 1980s were those former council house tenants who were given the opportunity to own their own homes – and crossed the party line from voting Labour to voting Conservatives as they did so. Who are their equivalents today?
The best answer is the obvious one: today’s generation of non-property owners. In the 1980s, they were likely to rent from councils. Today, they are more likely to rent from private landlords – or live with their parents. They are the young people who can’t afford to buy – and who, despite having a more sceptical view of the welfare state than people, are less likely than them to vote Tory (if they vote at all).
Housing was indispensable to the electoral success of the two Conservative leaders who won the biggest post-war majorities – Harold Macmillan in 1959, and Thatcher in 1983 and 1987. By respectively building and selling houses, both leaders slapped down a large “Welcome” mat outside the Party’s own electoral home.
Osborne has tried to do the same with Help to Buy. So has Eric Pickles with a similar scheme. However, both plans are, so to speak, relatively small mats. Some 48,000 people have utiltised Help to Buy plans to date. But by a year before the 1983 election 200,000 council houses had been sold to their tenants. Some two million may have been sold during the Thatcher years as a whole.
However, as Andrew Gimson put it in his account of the Thatcher period: “private builders have not stepped in to replace what the state used to do. The planning system has remained essentially socialist, which means there is an acute shortage of land in the parts of the country where the largest numbers of people actually want to live.”
This problem of the Thatcher sales is also one for the Osborne schemes: both are or were demand-side measures. The Chancellor could put out a bigger mat by expanding them. But this would risk precisely the housing bubble that the critics of Help to Buy have warned against. What is needed, rather, is action on the supply side. In this sense, Cameron’s model should be not Thatcher but the man whose photo decorated his opposition office: Macmillan (see Andrew’s piece here).
The Government has not been idle on supply. Greg Clark left a new planning framework behind him. It is a long way from perfect. But it allows more local discretion than Labour’s regional targets (though that isn’t saying much), and is breaking the housebuilding gridlock without degenerating into a free-for-all.
Osborne recently hailed new building in Ebbsfleet. There is a big scheme running in Bicester. It is hard to track the facts through the announcements and reannouncements, but one fact is clear: we are still not building the houses we need, and must build more if even more younger voters are not to be locked out of home ownership.
The core of the Party’s electoral problem is that too many people believe that Cameron leads the party of the rich: they don’t see any Welcome mat for them at all. The Prime Minister cannot now tear up his short-term campaign for May, aimed at those UKIP defectors and swing voters in midlands and northern marginals, to run a longer-term one which is pitched more at, say, more public sector workers, voters in non-target seats, and ethnic minorities.
But there is a way of projecting more warmth, more uplift, more of a sense of owning the future – in other words, putting out a larger mat. And, fortunately, it is embedded into Cameron’s six declared election priorities in any event. These are the deficit, jobs, taxes, retirement, education…and, yes, housing.
On education, he can point to the reforming work of Michael Gove – as he can to that of Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May, Francis Maude, Chris Grayling and Jeremy Hunt in the provision of grown-up government. But the biggest magnet for younger voters is clearly housing. We have set out our ideas in the ConservativeHome Manifesto. So what about a major push on new paths to ownership – with councils, housing associations and other landlords building new homes for sale?