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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.