This article was first published on ConservativeHome shortly after the death of Margaret Thatcher. It was written in the hope that the Party would, in learning from her, present a programme to voters that could win seats from Labour in 2015 – including the marginal one of Bolton West.
In honour of Chris Green’s victory in the seat last Thursday, we republish the piece today.
The Conservative Party is itself in poor health as it gathers to bury Margaret Thatcher. It hasn’t won an election in over 20 years. The effects of vote distribution and out-of-date boundaries conspire against it breaking the habit next time. It has lost Scotland altogether, and is the third party in much of the urban north. It won 16% of the ethnic minority vote in 2010: by 2050, ethnic minority members will make up one in five of the total. It has a serious political competitor on the right, UKIP, for the first time in living memory.
Labour’s rout on welfare earlier this month, and its squabbles over leadership and policy last week, have cheered up some Tory MPs – unduly so, all considered. A doctor’s diagnosis of their party’s condition would find serious illness, perhaps terminal decline. And the structural obstacles to a Conservative majority would remain even were this not a Government of which the whole is much less than the sum of the parts. So what can the Conservatives learn from the most potent election-winner in their history – the woman who they will honour today?
Like Shakespeare’s imaginary Caesar, like many real titans, Mrs Thatcher (as I’ll always think of her) can be viewed in irreconcilable ways and is subject to fiercely clashing interpretations. To David Owen, she was a cautious politician. To Martin Durkin, she was a revolutionary. She was outside the mainstream of the Compassionate Conservatism tradition, but I was struck, when I re-read the 1983 and 1987 Conservative manifestos last week, by how big the gap between myth and fact is – the child benefit rises, the new allowance for widows, the teachers’ pay increases, the huge hospital-building programme after Labour had slashed it by a third.
The mighty Caesar who is “constant as the northern star” is also frail and vulnerable: “come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf, and tell me truly what thou thinkst of him”. In trying to say everything about Mrs Thatcher, there is a danger of saying nothing. Instead, it’s best to acknowledge that some truths about her stand out as sharply as a cliff-face. The party has been at its most successful electorally when it projects both a sense of standing for the whole country and of capturing a growing part of it – what Marxists sometimes call “the rising class”. Since one of these appeals unites and the other can divide, there is an inevitable tension between them.
Macmillan covered both bases in his 1959 victory, scooping almost half the nation’s vote. The two-party system was beginning to creak as early as the 1970s, but Mrs Thatcher won a very creditable 44% in 1979, which declined slightly to 42% in 1983 and 1987. Her kind of conservatism was in many ways a reaction to his. Last week’s Ding Dong versus I’m In Love head-to-head is a reminder, were one needed, that her style of politics was divisive and confrontational – a reaction to her times, since Galtieri and the IRA hunger strikers and Scargill and Soviet communism and Tony Benn were divisive and confrontational.
She was right and they were wrong, and a generation of young Tory activists gloried in her courage and victories. Brian Monteith, an old election rival of mine, now a friend, and a Thatcherite when I was not, speaks for them in his article on this site this morning. Council house sales and share ownership and beating trade union bullies brought a wave of activists into the party from backgrounds that were often anything but conventionally conservative. But twenty years later, in a statistic that should be engraved on every party member’s heart, 72% of voters are open to supporting Labour, but only 58% to the Conservatives.
Some Tories blame Mrs Thatcher for masking long-term problems for the party with short-term success – and others point a finger at her less electorally successful successors. What Tim Montgomerie called Soho Modernisation (same-sex marriage, social liberalism, rapid carbon reduction) and Easterhouse Modernisation (Iain Duncan Smith, social conservatism, tough love) were, to their advocates, both ends in themselves and means of getting the Conservatives back in the game. But the lesson that Margaret Thatcher can teach today’s Tories is that neither of these strategies will deliver winning results on their own, or even together.
For while neutralising opposition in Soho is useful, and winning support in Easterhouse a noble ideal, neither will gain David Cameron in 2015 the victory that eluded him in 2010. To do that, he must hold and win a mass of midlands and northern marginals – the Conservatives’ position in the south being, on the whole, very well entrenched indeed. The Mrs Thatcher whose party held Bolton West in the 1980s – now the Labour-held non-southern seat with the smallest majority over the Conservatives – would face different challenges in that constituency now, in post-crash Britain. But she would knuckle down to championing the would-be rising class as she did then.
That might not mean council house and share sales, though the Government is again easing conditions for the former, and Allister Heath today makes an eloquent case for the latter. But it would mean taking the kind of position sketched out in Policy Exchange’s Northern Lights report – one aimed at voters on relatively low incomes (well below £26,000 or so), who are particularly pressed by relatively high prices, especially when it comes to the cost of heating a house or running a car, and who live in a part of the country in which the public sector is bigger than it is in the south.
These voters are economically cautious (nervous of losing their jobs, wary of plans for regional pay), but socially conservative (tough on immigration and welfare reform and Europe – especially the ECHR). Mrs Thatcher would have recogised at once that it makes no sense for such voters to pay higher heating bills than they can afford to pay because of the carbon price floor, or for workers earning below living wage levels both to pay income tax and be trapped in Gordon Brown’s cats-cradle of tax credits, or for them not to be able to afford to buy houses until they reach their late 30s.
She would also have grasped that the combination of the EU plus “human rights” plus judicial review helps to drive the sense that the political class is all the same, and that however you vote, nothing changes – and would articulate the Common Market Or Out position that she gravitated very slowly towards in Downing Street and much more rapidly after she left it. No doubt she would work her way towards her goal in the gradualist way that characterised her, particularly over trade union reform. None of this is particularly novel or surprising, but all of it looks more like real modernisation than some of the ideas which that word has been forced to bear.
You can call this programme Blue Collar Conservatism or, like Dominic Raab, Underdog Conservatism or, like Tim Montgomerie, Conservatism for the Little Guy (But what about the women?) There is no catch-all label, but it represents the kind of rising class – or would-be rising class – conservatism which Margaret Thatcher captured with such daring and imagination. With its belief in strong families and good schools and the work ethic, it has the capacity to appeal to those ethnic minority communities which hold conservative values – in particular, the Indian-origin voters identified by Lord Ashcroft’s research.
Mrs Thatcher would have seen that a big slice of Britain’s ethnic minority voters are part of today’s rising class, and pitched her electoral tent accordingly. (“Labour say he’s black, Tories say he’s British,” a Thatcher-era Tory election poster declared.) But the heartland of her appeal today would be where it always was – among the kind of battling, striving, hard-pressed, C1 and C2 voters for which David Cameron’s Conservative Party has, to date, shown very little feel, if any. Soho and Easterhouse are important, but Margaret Thatcher’s true legacy would be a conservatism for Bolton West. I hope that Christopher Green, the party’s candidate for that seat, will be writing on this site later this week.