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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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.