Because few Conservative strategists supported the Party’s working class provincial pivot, there’s a dearth of decent advice on “what next”, and a great deal of bad advice. Listening to conversations in Westminster in recent days, I fear that a number of misconceptions will drive bad decision-making. Here’s a brief summary.
- Thinking working class people want to be “like them”.The Conservatives’ obsession with social mobility is admirable, but the way in which many Conservative MPs talk about it winds people up. It sounds like they’re saying ordinary people have crap lives and could “do so much better” (maybe their kids could even live in Surrey if only they’d give them more self-confidence and get them volunteering). Most people are basically happy with their lot and want to stay living in their local communities with their families.
- Assuming they’ve taken on new troops for a culture war. While it’s true most of the working class voters that came over to the Conservatives are small-c conservatives, they aren’t potential activists in a culture war. They’re mostly totally unbothered by social change. They’re opposed to the metropolitan excesses of the Corbyn left and will react to those excesses when exposed to them, but they don’t want the Government to lead them into a cultural conflict. I suspect this will change within a decade as the British left continues its journey to the campuses of the US, but that’s not where they are now.
- Mistaking concern about immigration for an obsession with it. There’s no denying that working class voters are partly driven by concerns about immigration. But they are, for the most part, largely worried about border control, which they want established by leaving the EU. Queasy Conservative politicians should relax. New voters don’t want politicians to “talk tough”, nor do they want some great focus on illegal immigration. They just want border control and an intelligent and discerning system that determines who should receive visas.
- Thinking the working class are all poor. Most new working class voters – and basically all lower middle class voters – aren’t in poverty, don’t live in terrible estates and don’t have “troubled families”. Posh Tories have a terrible tendency to want to “help” poor provincial people to escape from their hell holes; as such, they focus massively on the urban poor and largely forget about the vast swathes of people that just get by. Emphatically, that’s not to say the Government shouldn’t worry about those in poverty, but the mass of “ordinary voters” have different concerns.
- Backing off welfare reform. Thinking specifically about policy, one of the biggest mistakes I can see emerging is backing off welfare reform – driven by misplaced fear such reform will be hitting their new voters. Wrong. Those most pumped up for welfare reform are those that live cheek by jowl with those on welfare – who go mad their neighbours wrongly claim while they get up at the crack of dawn to get to work every day. The Conservatives bottled welfare reform during the election campaign – fair enough – but should return to it in this Parliament.
- Hostility to big business. Many Conservatives have been persuaded working class people are hostile to big business. This is a fiction; as I’ve written here before, working class people understand big businesses provide jobs and wages and need to be supported (polling I did for the Taxpayers Alliance showed that working class people were much more supportive of business tax cuts than middle class voters, for example).
- Accepting the false choice between tax cuts and better services. For most of the last two decades, Conservatives have accepted the idea working class voters are happy to pay higher taxes to “ensure” better services. It was never this simple, but more and more working class voters are becoming exasperated with higher taxes while waiting times for GP appointments lengthen, and while crime rises. The Government’s recent announcement on cutting waste was met with predictable derision, but the public have completely bought the idea that waste – particularly in the NHS – is endemic. They’re ready to hear a more nuanced message on tax.
- Thinking everyone wants to do all their shopping on the high street. The Conservatives are right to worry about how to improve town centres, but too many think they all want the traditional high street defended or rebuilt. It’s not this simple. People like the convenience of massive supermarkets and internet shopping, and they despair at the inconvenience of high street shopping and the minimal range of good available at high prices. People want vibrant town centres where they can spend time; they don’t want to return to the 1980s where they do all their shopping there.
- Forgetting that public transport is just viable for vast numbers of people. It’s reasonable to try to improve public transport across provincial England. More people would get the bus and train to work if they could. But people in Westminster still forget that vast numbers of people not only don’t live near a train station, but they also don’t live near a bus stop. How many people in London would change their commute if it even meant adding 30 minutes a day to their travel time? Why on earth would people outside London make decisions that were going to add an hour?
- Thinking about a place called “The North”. When Nick Timothy was Chief of Staff to Theresa May, he articulated an approach which was heavily influenced by the West Midlands. This was useful because it made Southern Conservatives think in a more nuanced way about provincial England – he talked of somewhere where unemployment was low, where many businesses were growing, and where people were natural Conservatives. Now the Conservatives have won so much of working class Northern England, there’s been a shift back towards lumping basically anywhere north of Bedford into “the North” and a corresponding loss of nuance about provincial life. The party risks thinking about cloth caps and whippets again.
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Author: James Frayne
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