No longer overlooked but still decisive: has Theresa May conquered class politics for the Tories?

May 9, 2017

This article was featured on Conservative Home

Class has long been the unscaled peak of post 2001 Conservative modernisation. It seemed harder to surmount than gender, race and sexuality – the themes which dominated the early phases of Tory modernisation. Those were difficult enough to deal with at the time; and class is, of course, a much trickier thing to measure.

Last week’s local and metro mayoral elections suggest that Theresa May has every chance of making it to that summit.  Her first national electoral outing as Prime Minister shows that she enjoys a reach into much of urban and provincial Britain – including even places that have spurned the Tories since the Labour landslide of 1945. The cultural barriers to entry for patriotic, conservative-minded working people to vote Conservative are being broken down almost everywhere.

According to the latest ICM polling in the Sun on Sunday, even socio-economic groups D/E back the Conservatives by 42% to 35% over Labour, and by 41%-32% in the north of England. Scottish and Welsh Toryism,  which looked like folk memories, are once again potent forces (with the Conservatives running at 27%, against 43% for the SNP; and 44%-41% ahead of Labour in Wales).

It is worth recalling May’s conference keynote speech of 2002 when she chaired the Conservatives – the famed “nasty party” address: “I want us to be the Party that represents the whole of Britain and not merely some mythical place called ‘Middle England’, but the truth is that as our country has become more diverse, our party has remained the same”.  Significantly, 15 years ago, she was talking about inner cities and forgotten regions. This “One Nation” theme was developed in her speech on the steps of Downing Street when she became Prime Minister last July – “a country that works for everyone”.

So the semi-official narrative of Team May is looking highly plausible: that the original Notting Hill modernisation (centred around “metrosexual” issues of importance to the London elites) and Easterhouse modernisation (the initiative named for one of the most impoverished part of Glasgow that refocused the party on the needs of the least advantaged in society) would eventually give way to Erdington modernisation (named after the lower middle class part of Birmingham where her Joint Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, grew up).

These first phases of Notting Hill and Easterhouse modernisation– the route back to electoral health –  were necessary for the party get the metropolitan media monkey off its back.  A key part of this was making visible changes to candidate selection in order to yield outcomes more representative of modern Britain: the free market in candidate selection at the Tory grassroots was simply not working.

Much of this was pioneered by C-Change, a non charitable affiliate of Policy Exchange. Indeed, as May pointed out in her 2002 speech, only one out of thirty eight of the new Tory MPs in the 2001 intake were women. The problem, literally as well as metaphorically, was Tory men more than Tory measures.

It worked, just, in 2010 when Cameron’s Conservatives squeaked into office in Coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It was not that this modernisation yielded, for example, many more votes amongst those from BME backgrounds: rather, it reassured the more liberal sectors of the “white” electorate that the Conservatives were once again a respectable choice in the privacy of the voting booth. In 2015, Survation’s polling on behalf of British Future found that the gap between Labour and Conservatives amongst those from BME backgrounds had narrowed, one third of them voting for the Conservatives.  This data also indicated that Conservatives enjoyed a lead amongst Hindus and Sikhs.

But a range of modernising (as well as anti modernising) detractors of the Cameron project contended that there was always a “glass ceiling” on what the “posh boys” could achieve with the “blue collar” sections of the electorate. This was, in many ways, unfair: attending Eton and Oxford (and membership of the Bullingdon) did little obvious harm to the electoral prospects of Cameron and Johnson in the General Elections of 2010 and 2015, and the London Mayoral Elections of 2008 and 2012. None of these contests were foregone conclusions at the time. Indeed, they were touch and go affairs, in which personality played key parts, in the negative as well as positive senses.

Moreover, a metropolitan upbringing did not preclude the imagination that something more had to be done for the neglected regions: George Osborne, with his Cheshire constituency, took up the paper co-authored by the then Director of Policy Exchange, Neil O’Brien Northern Lights: Public policy and the geography of political attitude (2012). O’Brien (educated at a Huddersfield comprehensive) and Anthony Wells of YouGov found that although the Conservatives enjoyed little positive appeal in the North of England, the same was also true of Labour in what was meant to be its heartlands: Labour politicians were seen as just as remote as their Tory coevals, and the People’s Party dominance, as subsequently shown in Scotland in 2015, and in the local government elections across Great Britain in 2017, was little more than a Potemkin façade, ready to be kicked in. Significantly, O’Brien and Wells also found that reducing energy bills was at the top of people’s agenda.

Osborne eventually employed O’Brien as his Special Adviser further to “weaponise” Northern Lights in policy terms into the Northern Powerhouse. But Team May’s critique that the Northern Powerhouse focused too much on the development of one region — the narrow trans-Pennine corridor — did not stop them from scooping up O’Brien into No 10 as the Special Adviser. His new role was to help to devise an Industrial Strategy for the whole country – especially for the “forgotten Britain”, much of which had voted for Brexit. Last Friday night, he was selected as the Parliamentary Candidate for the safe Conservative seat of Harborough in the Midlands.

No less influential in addressing the neglected question of class in the wider modernisation of the centre right was James Frayne’s Overlooked But Decisive: Connecting with England’s Just About Managing Classes (Policy Exchange, 2015) – which was absorbed by May’s inner circle. Frayne, who was educated at a Derby comprehensive,  sought empirical evidence (again, in partnership with Anthony Wells at YouGov) to ascertain whether his anecdotal hunches were right: that the lower middle classes of provincial England from whence he came were not massively aspirational, as Blairite and Cameroon modernisers often supposed, but rather craved stability; they were both left wing and right wing simultaneously, in the sense (for example) of wanting to vote for parties that would safeguard the NHS into which they had paid heavy taxes, but also wanting a tougher line on immigration and Islamist terrorism. Frayne’s hunches turned out to be accurate.

Critically, the “overlooked but decisives’ ” definition of fairness focused not so much on the small number of very distant bankers in receipt of oversized bonuses – but rather on the much larger number of immediate neighbours on estates who on a day to day basis were the unmeritorious recipients of far smaller but very “in your face” welfare benefits. Moreover, the tax money of the “overlooked but decisives” wasn’t being spent on the outrageous bankers’ bonuses; rather, it was being spent on disability benefits for perfectly able bodied people “taking the piss” next door. This “right wing” definition of fairness cut against Ed Miliband in the 2015 General Election; indeed, the Coalition’s record on welfare reform from 2010 has still received too little credit in accounts of the subsequent Conservative victory.

It took the cathartic upheaval of the Brexit referendum in 2016 to turn the Conservatives into a potential option in tribally Labour heartlands  – and May’s subsequent skilful handling of the ship of state. At the simplest level, she is lucky in her opponents : Ed Miliband was scarcely an electoral asset for Labour, but he was far more credible than is Jeremy Corbyn. Similarly, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage were more credible than are Tim Farron and Paul Nuttall.

But May also seized this policy-changing moment with an alacrity that stunned friend and foe alike: in this sense, this former lukewarm Remainer has truly been the servant of a newly sovereign people. The Brexit plebiscite gave those “overlooked but decisives” a unique chance to express their feelings on national questions: who rules and, critically, related to that, the issue of who comes into the country and on what terms (note the salience of health tourism in both O’Brien’s and Frayne’s findings). Prior to that moment, any serious attempts to deal with migration and its outworkings on the front line of the public services would have reeked of the “nasty party”.

But because of who she is, and her past record, May can address these matters in a way that some leading Brexiteers can’t. To use Malcolm Muggeridge’s term, the Conservatives have opted for a bishop, not a bookie, to lead to lead them through this national revolution. There is a flavour of the National label, which Baldwin adopted in the 1930s; perhaps significantly, she is supporting efforts to raise a statue to Baldwin in his native Worcestershire.

At other times, her appeal seems de Gaulle-like: a certain distance from “mere party” factionalism, undergirded by an admixture of patriotism, national independence, and the prospect of big infrastructure projects. And the excesses of utilities where there is no real free market – such as the Philip Green-like “unacceptable faces of capitalism”, to adapt Edward Heath’s phrase – are slapped down with the alacrity of such muscular Progressive era Republican trust busters of the early 20th century.

Her tone has captured the moment. May’s ongoing modernisation of the Conservatives has entailed no obviously synthetic gestures to the “spirit of the age”, whether in clothing, accent or other aspects of her external appearance: no genuflection here to “Cool Britannia”. Her own form of provincial respectability is now aligned to the needs of those “people from somewhere” who voted Leave  – as opposed to the more cosmopolitan “anywheres” who voted “Remain”. The soubriquet was coined by  David Goodhart of Policy Exchange in his recent best selling book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (2017), whose work is admired in No 10.

As mood music, this is sufficient to the day in terms of occupying the center ground of politics: May has tipped her hat to Clement Attlee, the ultimate “somewhere” amongst patriotic Labour Prime Ministers. Perhaps occupying the centre ground is not so tall a mountain when faced with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, and ordinary people are volunteering spontaneously to pollsters that they think the present Labour leader is a “wrong ‘un” because of his failure to sing the National Anthem  and his historic tendresse for Irish republicanism – this nearly twenty years after the second IRA ceasefire and the apparent disappearance of the Irish Question from British politics because of the peace process. UKIP detached a chunk of those Labour voters from their moorings — becoming in the process the “pathway drug” to May’s One Nation appeal.

The Prime Minister’s personality on its own may prove to be enough – but the wider messaging about who the party’s standard-bearers are has been very clear. As the Sutton Trust has shown, May’s Cabinet contains the lowest number of privately educated Cabinet Ministers since the time of Clement Attlee – just 30% – with 44% now coming from non-selective state schools. These numbers were already rising as Cameron’s Premiership progressed from Coalition to exclusively Conservative Government in 2015, but the trend is clear.

Is all this a sufficient basis for an enduring structural, as opposed to a cyclical hold on the affections of the “somewheres”? One of the greatest changes in the UK during  the Blair–Brown years was the sharp spike in the public sector payroll from 5.4 million to 6.4 million persons – that is, rising by almost  a fifth. British politics thus became something of a struggle between the public sector middle classes and the private sector middle classes, with the latter paying for the gold plated pensions of the former; by contrast, New Labour was relatively cautious on headline rates of direct taxation.

One of the greatest changes under the Coalition between 2010 and 2015 was to reverse the headline numbers of public sector employees back to 1997 levels – down to 5.4 million. For example, the North East region saw the biggest proportional fall between 2010 and 2015, from 299,000 to 238,000. How long before that starts yielding electoral fruits – as the 2015 General Election, and the 2017 local elections, would seem to portend?

But can the Conservative revival be maintained if the State’s share of GDP starts creeping upwards again – and with it, the public sector payroll? What if Labour finds a more credible leader, which almost anyone else now surely will be? And why the residual resistance of some BMEs, as suggested by the latest ICM polling?  But these are questions for another day. Meanwhile, friend and foe can only look with wonderment at a dominance apparently greater than Thatcher’s – and, at least so far, much less controversial.

Join our mailing list