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