Why the Tories must shed their "party of the rich" image

For victory in the next election, the Conservatives must appeal to hard-pressed but aspirational vot

The Conservatives failed to win an eminently winnable election in 2010 because they weren't seen as understanding and empathising enough with the needs of ordinary working people. They were seen as the "party of the rich" and big business, rather than the party of hard pressed "strivers". This inability to connect cost David Cameron an overall majority. The Prime Minister's New Year offensive on executive pay, along with an overture not to remove the 50p tax rate, could mark a concentrated attempt to shift his party away from the "sectional party" label.

Internal Conservative polling, as well as polling for Lord Ashcroft, showed that potential Conservative voters were dissuaded from voting for the Tories because of a perception that the party was still "for the rich". As Philip Cowley observed:

Much more significantly, the party's own polling found a lingering distrust of the Conservatives among the public. When those who had considered voting Tory were asked why they had not eventually done so, the most common answers involved concerns that the party was still for the rich rather than for ordinary people.

Polling by YouGov has shown that the Conservatives are seen as much closer to the rich and to big business than to any other group. To many, the party still looks very gilded, very southern and very public school. Indeed, some 42 per cent of voters still say that they would never consider voting Conservative. ComRes also recently found that only 27 per cent of voters believe that government "policies share the burden of hard times fairly so that we are all in it together." The Conservatives failed to make a sizeable breakthrough amongst the electorally crucial "skilled manual workers" at the last election, and have a mountain to climb if they can't persuade those voters to vote Tory in 2015.

In an age of austerity and economic uncertainty, any perception that the Tories are governing in the interests of "their rich friends" would be electorally toxic, particularly combined with a perception that many in the top of the party lack empathy or understanding about the difficulties facing ordinary, hard-working people.

Putting Cameron at the spearhead of a government drive to do something about excessive executive pay is a clear attempt to separate, in the eyes of the voter, the Conservatives and the "undeserving rich". It is an attempt to show the Conservatives as a party that understands the concerns and the anger of ordinary hard-working people when they are faced with stagnant real incomes, a rising cost of living and increasing job insecurity at the same time that they see executives taking home top rocketing rewards even when their companies are shrinking in value.

Polling for Policy Exchange has shown that the majority of people highly value the concept of "meritocracy" and "something for something" when they are looking to define "fairness". Sixty three per cent of people said that "fairness" is about "getting what you deserve" and 85 per cent of people agreed with the definition of fairness that "people's incomes should depend on how hard they work and how talented they are." This clearly isn't a definition of fairness that equates to top executives taking massive severance packages for failure, or to executives taking a 49 per cent increase in compensation last year, which bore little resemblance to the performance of their firms.

Action over executive pay and preventing "rewards for failure" will help reassure those working class and lower middle class voters, who both parties need to woo at the next election, that the government is serious in its "all in this together" rhetoric. And the same logic applies to the Prime Minister's declaration that the 50p tax rate would remain, until the next election at least. Although a cause celebre amongst some on the Tory right, the PM argued in a recent newspaper interview that abolition of the 50p tax rate would not be seen as fair by the wider public. While the government is keen to abolish the 50p rate over the longer term, it is clearly concerned about being seen to be on the side of ordinary people, rather than just the rich.

The Prime Minister's interview will certainly help the Conservatives shed their "party of the rich" label if it is accompanied by action as well as mere rhetoric. If they are serious about winning the next election, the Tories need to go beyond merely not being seen as the party of the rich. They also need to be positively seen as a party that understands the needs and concerns of hard-pressed, but aspirational, working and middle class voters, which means developing credible policies on energy bills, the cost of living, childcare and job creation.

David Skelton is Deputy Director of Policy Exchange. You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

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Labour's Eurosceptics should steer clear of loaded language

Phrases such as "wholesale importation" leave the impression Labour will not speak for migrant workers.

Nothing reflects Britain’s division over Brexit than the Labour party. Do we want soft or hard Brexit? What do we prioritise? The fractures within the party’s ranks is a portrait of the divisions splintering the country.

Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit helped it in the general election in appealing to everyone. It convinced Remain voters that they could hold the Tories to account while promising the Leave voters that the referendum decision would be respected. But now clarity is needed. 

The Labour leadership seems to be angling for a hard Brexit, wishing to leave the single market and customs union on the grounds that this honours the wishes of the 52 per cent. Ironically, they are at odds with everyone in this situation, from the general public – who favour access to single market over immigration controls – to a poll in LabourList showing that 72 per cent of readers prioritised inclusion within the single market.

Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm attitude to the EU is well documented. If the Labour Party are serious about their public ownership plans for the railways and energy, it’s likely they envision it being made difficult within the EU because of directives which create competition between the state and the private sector. There are unexplored alternatives to this, as seen in Germany and Italy where private companies are made and run the industries with the states acting as the major shareholders of the company. However it’s unlikely to see the hard left ever accepting this, given its disdain for both the private sector and the idea of it interacting with the state to deliver services.

But this is not all that should trouble progressives regarding the Labour leadership’s stance on Brexit. During a recent Andrew Marr programme in which he appeared on, Corbyn claimed that mass immigration had been used to denigrate the conditions for British workers, saying that there was a “wholesale importation” of workers from parts of Europe which would then undermine the rights of British workers. It’s an argument that has been regurgitated by British politicians consistently in recent years – but from the right, not the left.

The idea that migrants are taking British jobs and depressing wages does not hold up to evidence at all. The London School of Economics carried out a research which illustrated increases in migration from the EU did not result in depression of British wages. That’s not to suggest that wages have not stagnated, but rather the trend is linked to the financial crash in 2008, rather than migration. Corbyn’s defenders insist that there were no deliberate racist overtones in his argument, and that the villains are employers deliberately taking advantage of an easily exploited labour market. But the manner in which Corbyn framed his speech was worrying.

The reason for this is that Brexit has created an unbelievable sense of uncertainty, insecurity and fear amongst migrants. Their position in society is now being contested by politicians with different stakes in society to them. Xenophobic abuse – legitimised as an acceptable part of political discourse by Brexit – has been climbing swiftly. Immigrants are seen as threats to British jobs and that is a narrative consistently drummed out – not just since last year but for possibly the past decade.

This is not to say that Labour should not address how some employers might seek to cut costs by hiring foreign workers on a cheap rate. But phrases such as “wholesale importation” or even using the heavily demonised “mass migration” simply sketches the idea that Labour are swinging towards the hard Brexit voters, and in doing so leaving migrant workers to be defended by no one. If the intended idea was to castigate employers, it simply entrenched the idea of immigration as a problem. Rather than bringing British and migrant workers together, you know with that whole “workers of the world unite” idea, Corbyn’s framing of the argument keeps them pitted against each other.

If Brexit has shown us anything it’s that language matters in politics in how it transmits its message to people. Slogans such as “take back control” were attacks on multiculturalism and immigration, stoking white nationalism, even if the Leave campaign insisted it wasn’t about that. Likewise, Corbyn might insist it wasn’t about migrants, but his message sounded a lot like he was blaming freedom of movement for the suppression of wage growth in Britain.

Needless to say, Labour need a rethink on what kind of Brexit it pursues.