Show Hide image

The challenge for the Tories is to find their own version of Blairism

Cameron's party must avoid lurching to either right or left, argues Neil O'Brien.

Britain’s main political parties are very diverse coalitions, made up of all kinds of different groups. Like some kind of cruel reality TV show, utterly ill-matched people are forced to work together and pretend to like each other. In a particularly disturbing social experiment conducted every autumn, the members of these sprawling ideological tribes are herded into a specially secured zone in some unfortunate city, with only each other for company. With such a combustible mix of personalities, and a shedload of booze poured on top, it’s a wonder more people aren’t injured.

Within the Conservative Party there are many different types of people – libertarians and authoritarians, globally oriented hipsters and tweedy country types, paternalistic wets and self-made Thatcherites. It’s a given among commentators that the Tory brand is “toxic” for a large group of voters. The chatterati talk knowingly about “detoxification” or “retoxi - fication”, but what does that mean? Is it about arrogance or illiberalism, free-market economics or class politics?

A look at the polls suggests that the Conservatives have four main challenges. The first is among voters outside its southern heartland. In the south and the east of England, the Tories have nine out of every ten seats; in the Midlands, they have about half; and, in the north, less than a third. In Scotland, they hold a single seat.

Premier problem

The second issue is urbanites. The Tory problem in the north and Midlands is specifically urban: of the 80 rural seats in those regions, the Conservatives hold 57 (71 per cent); of the 124 seats in cities, they have just 20 (16 per cent). That is why there is only one Conservative MP with a Premiership football team in his constituency – although there are 20 teams in the league.

The Tories’ problems in the urban north are not simply because there are more working class voters in such seats. Identity is a big part of it. In fact, working-class voters in the south of England are more likely to vote Conservative than middle-class voters in the north. Changing this will take a while. The Tories have no elected councillors in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle, and no activist base. London is the other urban problem: the Conservatives hold just 38 per cent of the seats in Greater London (despite the capital having Boris Johnson as mayor).

A third issue, which overlaps with the party’s urban problem, is its poor showing among ethnic-minority voters. Fewer than one in eight voters of Pakistani origin voted Tory, while nearly six out of ten voted Labour. Among black voters, fewer than one in ten voted Tory, while eight out of ten voted Labour.

Finally, there is the perception of two-thirds of the electorate who agree, when asked, that “the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people”. Even among Tory voters, more than a quarter agree with the statement. In other words, they are voting for the party despite this problem.

Though class differences in voting patterns have declined rapidly in recent decades, there are still those who think that the Conservative Party is “not for people like us”. This element overlaps with the party’s issues in the urban north, because people in the north are more likely to perceive themselves as working class than people doing the same job in the south. That is to say, it isn’t so much about what class you are, as what class you think you are.

In summary, a political consultant or pollster would tell the party that it needs to get less pale, less southern and more urban, and do better among ordinary people. That means changing the look and feel of the party on the one hand, and its policy platform on the other.

Listening to Conservative internal debates, one hears indications of an emerging renewal. Some Tory commentators have talked about a new round of “blue-collar modernisation”.

Are big changes needed? The gathering economic recovery and voters’ doubts about Ed Miliband should help; however, these factors won’t be enough to win the Tories a majority at the next election. Pretty substantial, eyecatching changes are needed to make people look again at the party.

Do the Tories have the stomach to make these changes? It is a media cliché that the Tories are split between the Macmillanite, socially liberal and cosmopolitan leadership and a ravenously right-wing horde of backbenchers. This misses the point, and gives too much weight to a small number of highly vocal critics.

Many of the 2010 intake are in marginal seats, some spending four days a week working in their constituencies. Constant exposure to the electorate, and the threat of unemployment in 2015, concentrate the mind wonderfully on what the voters want. A couple of months ago, the so-called 301 Group of mainstream MPs did well in elections to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.

Broad base

But where is the centre? When it comes to crime, immigration or welfare dependency, the British electorate is pretty tough. Yet voters want to know that the Tories aren’t just going to look after their rich mates. At the next election, Tory candidates need a clearer offering for those who work hard on low incomes; something to say to the fifth of households that live in social housing; and an agenda that makes sense to people in areas of high unemployment and to the millions who work in public services.

The brilliance of Blairism was to detach the popular parts of Labour’s wish-list (such as the minimum wage) from the unpopular items (being soft on crime, defence and public spending). The challenge for the Tories is not so much to lurch right or left, but to come up with an equivalent of Blairism.

Neil O’Brien is director of the think tank Policy Exchange.

Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.