How the Tories can re-engage with working class voters

Rather than aping UKIP, the party should focus on the cost of fuel, the cost of housing, job security and the cost of travel.

The 'town hall debate' in the 1992 US presidential election was one of the most potent moments in modern western politics. An audience member asked, "how has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?" Billionaire Ross Perot was wrongfooted, George Bush Snr muttered something about the deficit, interest rates and his grandchildren. And then Bill Clinton stepped away from the podium and towards the lady in the audience who had asked the question, asking how the recession had affected her.

After establishing that the questioner knew people who had lost their homes and jobs during the recession, Clinton talked about the similar experiences of people he knew in Arkansas before relating it to his overall campaign themes. In a few seconds, Clinton had achieved the holy grail of modern politics - illustrating empathy and authenticity in difficult times. Bush and Perot failed to do that and paid the price. And modern British politicians are largely failing to do this as well, leading, at least in part, to the UKIP surge of last week.
"Politicians don't understand the real world at all." That was the firm view of over 80 per cent of voters in a poll last year. And last Thursday's elections saw the bursting of that dam of frustration with a Westminster elite seen as narrow and out of touch. If mainstream politicians don't act quickly to reconnect with hard-pressed, ordinary voters, they'll find that last week's results could mark the beginning of a trend, rather than a one-off howl of voter rage.
The same poll showed that, for the vast majority of voters, the Tories are seen as the "party of the rich, not ordinary people" - an impression that is one of the party's biggest electoral handicaps. But the leadership of the other parties also seem out of touch with the struggles of much of the country. As people struggle to make their pay packet last and worry about job security, senior politicians are not seen to understand people's everyday struggles.
And that, at least to an extent, has helped contribute to UKIP's surge and the general lack of enthusiasm about all of our mainstream political parties. As Lord Ashcroft's extensive research showed, concern about Europe is not the primary reason for UKIP's rise. Rather, UKIP voters are likely to agree with the statement that the party is "on the side of people like me" - something that they don't regard the mainstream parties as being.  Indeed, a recent YouGov poll found that 53 per cent of voters thought that Labour used to care about "people like me", compared to only 30 per cent today.
That helps explain why the shift to UKIP last Thursday wasn't, as conventional wisdom once suggested, largely from once Tory voters. Indeed, as Mark Pack and John Rentoul have argued, Labour may have lost more votes to UKIP than the Tories. And UKIP seemed to pick up votes from the skilled working class voters once courted so successfully by Thatcher and Blair. Both Labour and the Conservatives failed to capture the imagination of the skilled working class last time, with Labour's vote plunging from 51 per cent in Blair's biggest landslides to 29 per cent.
This disengagement of the skilled working class with the major political parties has hardly come as a surprise. In 1992, 75 per cent of 'C2' voters turned out to vote. In 2010, that figure was 58 per cent.  Parliament remains too middle class, with too few MPs who can genuinely relate to the struggles that accompany a squeeze in living standards. To many voters, frontline politicians all come from a narrow background and have little to no experience of 'the real world'. It was always inevitable that a party would come along that capitalised from this sense of disengagement.
There's no simple solution to this problem, of course, but one thing the mainstream parties mustn't do is to ape UKIP - that would look desperate and forced. Instead, politicians have to try harder to show that they understand the pressures that hard working people are under and do something about it. The Budget was a step in the right direction, but it's clear that so much more needs to be done about the cost of fuel, cost of housing, job security and the cost of travel. The political establishment also has to take active measures to broaden the social base of parliament.
Knee jerking and gesture politics are not going to re-engage voters with mainstream politics. Instead, through their words and actions, politicians have to display the kind of authenticity and empathy that Clinton illustrated to devastating effect a few decades ago.
David Skelton is former deputy director of Policy Exchange and is launching a new campaign group to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters
David Cameron addresses Conservative Party supporters at the Amberside Sports Club in Nuneaton. Photograph: Getty Images,

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.