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30 October 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 5:03am

The Conservatives must break with free-market liberalism or they will perish

Research shows voters are craving protection and security, not small-state economics. 

By Will Tanner

The sheer complexity of this general election make it impossible to predict. The Conservatives have a solid poll lead over Labour but “don’t know” is ahead of everyone in most surveys. In 2017, four in ten voters switched parties at the ballot box and falling partisanship suggests more will do so this time. Brexit has twisted the kaleidoscope and created new tribal loyalties that make tactical and protest voting much more likely. 

What we do know is that old political coalitions are fragmenting as voters increasingly seek protection from the turbulence of the modern world. In doing so, they implicitly reject the liberalising policies that drove the politics and victories of Tony Blair and David Cameron, and ask for something new. This was manifest in the Brexit vote but it is starting to cut across a swathe of domestic social and economic issues too. 

Onward’s research published this morning shows that by a ratio of two-to-one, people want the government to focus on giving people more security rather than more freedom. Two-thirds of people believe the growth of the cities, more people going to university, and technological change has been bad for society. With the notable exception of Londoners, most people think the country has been moving further away from their own views on the economy and cultural issues. 

This should not surprise us, even if the strength of feeling is striking. For most people, especially in towns and suburbs, life is getting harder. In the last 20 years, many low-skilled jobs have been devalued by automation or wage stagnation, or both. Over the same period, the social fabric of communities has deteriorated, with retail closures just the latest emblem of high street decline after the earlier loss of pubs, post offices, banks and libraries. 

In a damning assessment of the way the economy works, or doesn’t, for different people, a remarkable 74 per cent of the public think that it is becoming harder for people like them to make a decent living. The same proportion — 74 per cent — agree with the statement that the “wealthiest in our society have generally earned their money by exploiting others”. No wonder two-thirds of people say they are willing to sacrifice growth to achieve greater equality – prosperity isn’t working for them. 

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This poses a challenge for a party like the Conservatives — which has not only been in power for nine years but has long exalted economic liberalisation at all costs. The party will not win in towns such as Bishop Auckland, Wigan and Castleford — seats which have not returned a single Tory since the First World War – by pledging deregulation, tax cuts and laissez-faire economic policy. 

So electoral necessity must once again become the mother of political reinvention. The test for the Conservatives is whether Boris Johnson can transform his fledgling domestic agenda into a fully-formed political philosophy amid the fury of the short campaign. 

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Many of the building blocks are already in place. The new Prime Minister has acknowledged, in deed and word, that voters demand investment for public services, not the tax cuts he flashed at the Tory faithful during his leadership bid. His early speech pledging to regionalise control of northern railways and provide funding to regenerate high streets drew the right tramlines for a more expansive regional agenda. 

But the real opportunity is to fill the gap left open by a Labour Party more interested in its own liberal virtues than its traditional working class base. On the economy, this means outflanking the left on work and wages by ending low pay through higher minimum wages and retraining millions of low-paid workers at risk of automation. Where industries are strategically important, it means government not being ideological about intervening to protect workers or safeguard intellectual capital. It makes developing an industrial strategy that focuses on place, as well as sectoral interests, essential.

On cultural issues, voters demand control of immigration numbers but they also demand a fairer system. There is a case for making residency and citizenship more conditional, for example, as they do in countries such as Denmark and Canada. The same fairness principle extends to education, where up to a quarter of university courses deliver little for students or taxpayers. That money would be better spent on apprenticeships and technical institutes for the half of school leavers who will never set foot on a university campus. 

Most importantly, conservatism needs to rediscover its belief in the institutions that underpin community. This must be more than the good intentions and noblesse oblige that bedevilled “the big society”. It should be a practical set of interventions to rebuild community from the ground up – empowering people to take over local assets that fall out of use, handing over public buildings to house civic institutions, recreating parish council networks, and using public sector land to create community land trusts in the spirit of the last century’s Allotment Act. 

The last time the Conservatives called an election in December was in 1923. Voters rewarded them with a hung parliament and a minority Labour government led by a lifelong pacifist and aided by Liberal votes. If Boris Johnson is to avoid a similar fate, he cannot rely on Brexit bullishness and superior charisma. The Conservatives need a deeper vision for the country, rooted in voters’ desire for protection and community, or they will perish.

Will Tanner is the director of Onward and a former adviser to Theresa May