The challenge for the Tories is to find their own version of Blairism

October 4, 2012

Britain’s main political parties are very diverse coalitions, made up of all kinds of different groups. Like some kind of cruel reality TV show, utterly ill-matched people are forced to work together and pretend to like each other. In a particularly disturbing social experiment conducted every autumn, the members of these sprawling ideological tribes are herded into a specially secured zone in some unfortunate city, with only each other for company. With such a combustible mix of personalities, and a shedload of booze poured on top, it’s a wonder more people aren’t injured.

Within the Conservative Party there are many different types of people – libertarians and authoritarians, globally oriented hipsters and tweedy country types, paternalistic wets and self-made Thatcherites. It’s a given among commentators that the Tory brand is “toxic” for a large group of voters. The chatterati talk knowingly about “detoxification” or “retoxification”, but what does that mean? Is it about arrogance or illiberalism, free-market economics or class politics?

A look at the polls suggests that the Conservatives have four main challenges. The first is among voters outside its southern heartland. In the south and the east of England, the Tories have nine out of every ten seats; in the Midlands, they have about half; and, in the north, less than a third. In Scotland, they hold a single seat.

Premier problem

The second issue is urbanites. The Tory problem in the north and Midlands is specifically urban: of the 80 rural seats in those regions, the Conservatives hold 57 (71 per cent); of the 124 seats in cities, they have just 20 (16 per cent). That is why there is only one Conservative MP with a Premiership football team in his constituency – although there are 20 teams in the league.

The Tories’ problems in the urban north are not simply because there are more working class voters in such seats. Identity is a big part of it. In fact, working-class voters in the south of England are more likely to vote Conservative than middle-class voters in the north. Changing this will take a while. The Tories have no elected councillors in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle, and no activist base. London is the other urban problem: the Conservatives hold just 38 per cent of the seats in Greater London (despite the capital having Boris Johnson as mayor).

A third issue, which overlaps with the party’s urban problem, is its poor showing among ethnic-minority voters. Fewer than one in eight voters of Pakistani origin voted Tory, while nearly six out of ten voted Labour. Among black voters, fewer than one in ten voted Tory, while eight out of ten voted Labour.

Finally, there is the perception of two-thirds of the electorate who agree, when asked, that “the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people”. Even among Tory voters, more than a quarter agree with the statement. In other words, they are voting for the party despite this problem.

Though class differences in voting patterns have declined rapidly in recent decades, there are still those who think that the Conservative Party is “not for people like us”. This element overlaps with the party’s issues in the urban north, because people in the north are more likely to perceive themselves as working class than people doing the same job in the south. That is to say, it isn’t so much about what class you are, as what class you think you are.

In summary, a political consultant or pollster would tell the party that it needs to get less pale,less southern and more urban, and do better among ordinary people. That means changing the look and feel of the party on the one hand, and its policy platform on the other.

Listening to Conservative internal debates, one hears indications of an emerging renewal. Some Tory commentators have talked about a new round of “blue-collar modernisation”.

Are big changes needed? The gathering economic recovery and voters’ doubts about Ed Miliband should help; however, these factors won’t be enough to win the Tories a majority at the next election. Pretty substantial, eye-catching changes are needed to make people look again at the party.

Do the Tories have the stomach to make these changes? It is a media cliché that the Tories are split between the Macmillanite, socially liberal and cosmopolitan leadership and a ravenously right-wing horde of backbenchers. This misses the point, and gives too much weight to a small number of highly vocal critics.

Many of the 2010 intake are in marginal seats, some spending four days a week working in their constituencies. Constant exposure to the electorate, and the threat of unemployment in 2015, concentrate the mind wonderfully on what the voters want. A couple of months ago, the so-called 301 Group of mainstream MPs did well in elections to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.

Broad base

But where is the centre? When it comes to crime, immigration or welfare dependency, the British electorate is pretty tough. Yet voters want to know that the Tories aren’t just going to look after their rich mates. At the next election, Tory candidates need a clearer offering for those who work hard on low incomes; something to say to the fifth of households that live in social housing; and an agenda that makes sense to people in areas of high unemployment and to the millions who work in public services.

The brilliance of Blairism was to detach the popular parts of Labour’s wish-list (such as the minimum wage) from the unpopular items (being soft on crime, defence and public spending). The challenge for the Tories is not so much to lurch right or left, but to come up with an equivalent of Blairism.

This article originally appeared on The New Statesman’s website

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