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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war