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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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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