The modernisation of the Conservative Party is not complete

We must not appear uncomfortable with multicultural Britain.

Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph included an opinion piece from my colleague Damian Green arguing, among other things, that if the Conservative Party gives the impression that it doesn't like modern Britain, it is very unlikely that modern Britain will like it.

Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, has responded on the magazine's Coffee House blog, arguing that Damian’s analysis is about ten years out of date. Fraser is one of the most articulate and passionate champions of the Conservative cause, but he’s wrong about this on two counts.

First, he argues that the war has already been won. "The Tory Party has moved on" he says, pointing to some of the most impressive members of the 2010 intake. It is certainly true that the war within the Conservative Party has been largely won - most of my colleagues accept the need to appeal beyond the core Conservative vote, to talk about issues like the NHS, the environment and equality as well as more traditional Tory fare like tax, crime and immigration, though a few still don’t get it. But the real war always was and is external, not internal.

Take ethnic minority electors, a growing segment of the electorate: if Fraser really thinks that the war is won, he should take a look at the results of the Ethnic Minority British Election Study or Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling. I suspect that Fraser would reply that it is the imaginative policy thinking of some of my colleagues that will change attitudes among these voters, not vague talk of being comfortable with modern Britain. And to a degree, he would be right - but policy on its own isn’t the answer. Most voters don’t have a detailed knowledge of each party’s policies (they do however pick up on remarks that directly affect them - a surprising number of black and minority ethnic voters in my constituency know that the Prime Minister attacked multiculturalism in an otherwise excellent speech on security in Munich in February 2011) - they decide how to vote based on their perception of what each party stands for. And if you have a damaged brand it colours the perception of all your policies. Take the example Fraser gives: he argues that many people are concerned about immigration and are quite capable of separating this from concerns about race. He is absolutely right - black and minority voters in my constituency are just as concerned as everyone else about the level of immigration and the resulting pressure on public services. But if voters think a party is uncomfortable with multicultural Britain, they will draw conclusions about the motivation behind its immigration policy.

Fraser’s second error is to view modernising the Conservative Party as being about appealing to ethnic minority voters, the LGBT community and metropolitan liberals. To be fair to him, he’s not alone in having this view - and it’s hardly surprising that many people have that impression because these are the groups that the modernisers of the last 1990s/early 2000s tended to talk about. But you could equally talk about public sector workers, Fraser’s fellow Scots or those who live in the great cities of the north and the midlands.

The real war, then, is to change perceptions of the Conservative Party among millions of people whose values on issues like the family, reward for hard work, crime and Europe are Conservative but who do not think of themselves as Conservatives. More people tell pollsters that they would never vote Conservative than say they would never vote Labour. This is not something we should take pride in.

David Cameron won a battle in 2010, securing an additional two million Conservative votes, but the war has not been won - indeed, arguably, we have gone backwards since 2010, particularly among public sector workers because of the painful decisions we have had to take to deal with the financial mess we inherited. It must be won if we want to see a majority Conservative government.

Gavin Barwell is the Conservative MP for Croydon Central.

David Cameron delivers his keynote speech to delegates at last year's Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Barwell is Conservative MP for Croydon Central.

Getty
Show Hide image

What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.