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28 September 2017

The Conservatives still don’t understand that Jeremy Corbyn is a real threat

Watching footage from the Labour party conference in Brighton should disabuse them of that notion.

By Stephen Bush

David Cameron had a particular combination of respect and affection for the 97 Conservative MPs who contested and won Labour seats at the 2010 general election – not just because they were more likely to appreciate how much they owed to his personal popularity, but because they gave him a direct link to public opinion in marginal constituencies.

Their opinions often swayed the then prime minister. It was anger among the marginal MPs in the class of 2010 that led to the sacking of the culture secretary Maria Miller from the cabinet after a row over MPs’ expenses. It was a desire to protect the class of 2010 from a surging Ukip, as much as an attempt to keep the likes of Douglas Carswell in the Tory fold, that drove Cameron to commit to an EU referendum.

Now Conservatives in marginal seats find themselves in a less influential position. Yes, Theresa May has been hosting relative newcomers at Chequers. Yet those in fragile Tory terrain fret that grandees far from the political front line have the ear of the party leadership far more than they do. A target of particular frustration is the Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who has a 22,733 majority in South Staffordshire and is seen as being unresponsive to their needs. 

This divide between safe seats and marginals might be less obvious than the ideological splits, but it is no less important – and it has ramifications for the formation of policy. Take the housing reforms proposed by the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid. In September, Javid told MPs that if average prices in an area were more than four times the average income, councils would not be able to block new developments. He also promised a “substantial” review of social housing in a green paper.

Talk to Conservative MPs in Labour’s unofficial list of target seats – the 76 constituencies where the party is presently selecting candidates for the next election – and they will tell you that Javid is not going far enough. Yet talk to Conservatives in safe seats and they are angry on behalf of their Nimby constituents. How does No 10 deal with that disparity? “[Gavin] Williamson thinks all dissent is created equal,” one MP in a marginal complained to me. “But there’s a big difference between Andrew Mitchell losing 1,000 votes in Sutton Coldfield because we built a few homes there and me losing [1,000 votes] because we don’t.”

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The Tory problem with younger voters – those below the national average age of 40 – will be the subject of anguished debates at the conference fringe in Manchester this week, as it was at the one-day Big Tent Ideas Fest in Norfolk on 22 September, organised by the enlightened backbencher George Freeman. Right-wing commentators, such as Tim Montgomerie of the UnHerd website, claim that young people are lost to the right because the left has won the culture wars in the universities and creative industries. (If only there were a museum to explain the evils of communism, they sigh.)

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The reality is that under-40s are, on the whole, still Thatcher’s children: aspirational and acquisitive. Although most of them are firmly socially liberal, many are unable to get on to the housing ladder and fear that Brexit will make them significantly poorer. The Labour leadership believes that it can use this sense of discontent as well as the failure of the Tory economic model to make the case for an alternative.

The Conservative problem with the young might not be easy to solve, but at least it isn’t hard to diagnose. If the Tories can create a new generation of house-owners (and refrain from damaging culture wars against the socially liberal and the ethnically diverse), the floor might yet collapse underneath Labour’s feet.

May’s and Javid’s difficulty, though, is that almost any policy lever that makes it easier for the under-40s to get on the property ladder hits older Tory voters where it hurts: their house prices.

Adding to the political pain, some of the 36 per cent of 25-to-34-year-olds who are owner-occupiers may owe their good fortune to George Osborne’s Help to Buy scheme, which means they have put down just a 5 per cent deposit. Any depreciation in property values would tip those voters – who mostly stuck with the Conservatives in 2017 – into negative equity.

To win the future, then, the Tories must be willing to risk endangering the present. However, they show little intention of doing so: Javid’s housing review was barely trailed in the media. (Inevitably, the Daily Mail noticed it, describing it as a threat to the “precious” green belt.) This suggests that the worries of the solid blue shires are heard more loudly in Downing Street than the protests of the marginals. It also suggests that, for all the hand-wringing over the general election, many Tory backbenchers continue to underestimate the threat posed to them by Jeremy Corbyn.

Watching footage from the Labour party conference in Brighton should disabuse them of that notion. The leadership was confident – witness John McDonnell’s bold statements on nationalisation, and the way that only the star strikers of the shadow cabinet were allowed to make speeches. (Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, had to fight to get a slot; Manchester’s Andy Burnham was denied one.) The enthusiasm for Corbyn among members is greater than ever. Labour staffers joked that they wish they had trademarked his image rights, given the amount of unofficial merchandise on sale.

And yet Tory backbenchers’ sense of denial over the possibility of a Corbyn government is shared by some Labour MPs, who are experiencing a combination of internal exile and a crisis of faith: they refuse to believe that Corbyn will win the next election. When I asked one MP how he was feeling, he said: “Well, I’m a member of the Labour Party, but apart from that I’m doing OK.”