James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Theresa May’s overwhelming priority during conference season is to give a great speech that keeps her in Number Ten until the next election. A poor one will leave her vulnerable to challenge, while a merely decent speech will underline her position as a caretaker leader for two years. With that in mind, she’ll need to obsess about the style and theatre of her speech – ultimately, where she’ll primarily be judged. But the Conservative Party’s priority for conference season and for this autumn is different: it needs to make progress in the polls, in case an election comes early.
Since its inception, this column has advocated a strategy that appeals to the mass of the provincial English lower middle class (although there’s a case this should now be broadened to include the provincial English working class). However, while the Conservatives should indeed worry primarily about a positive strategy designed with voters’ fundamental values and longer-term policy priorities in mind, there’s an immediate need to take the fight to Labour. While it’s true to say that the polls are always all over the place in the months immediately following an election, it’s at least possible that Labour’s surge against the Conservatives is real and they must act on the basis that it is so they’re not left flailing when an election comes.
Here are five ideas for establishing a contrast campaign against Labour over the autumn:
1. Labour are vulnerable on education and housing. Labour lead the Conservatives on three big issues that matter to the public: health, where the lead is massive; education, where the lead is quite small; and housing, where the lead is significant, and particularly so amongst younger voters. Let’s put health aside for a moment; Labour’s lead on education and housing are surely vulnerable to Conservative attack. On education, the Conservatives’ radical education policies, which Labour have consistently opposed, are now starting to bear fruit. The most recent GCSE results showed that free schools are performing strongly and opening up opportunities for many thousands of state school pupils. For reasons known only to them, the Government was slow to celebrate what is manifestly a great Conservative achievement. The Party needs to build this into their narrative about why they’re right and Labour wrong on education. On housing, the Conservatives can and should be developing a massive housebuilding programme – with a particular focus on extending home ownership. Labour’s housing policy seems designed with the very poorest in mind; this is noble enough, but it ignores the vast numbers of average earners in younger age brackets that want to own their own home.
2. Go for Corbyn but – via the economy. Of course there’s a place for negative attacks on Corbyn, just as there’s a place for Labour attacks on Theresa May. The Conservatives need to find a way of criticising him on something that is important to the public and where his numbers look artificially high. Looking at the polling now, and this might change in time, the economy currently fits the bill. This is reasonably high up the public’s list of stated priorities (although it’s arguably a key part of Brexit, their primary stated priority) and the Conservative lead over Labour is modest despite the fact that many voters would shudder at the thought of Corbyn’s economic programme being implemented in its entirety – and despite the fact many worry about his competence. Philip Hammond was said to be annoyed the economy was downplayed in the election. Whatever the truth of the summer of 2017, it seems clear that the economy should be a central attack line on Jeremy Corbyn.
3. Stress Labour dysfunction and duplicity on the EU. It’s clear that Labour’s popularity, particularly in London, is because people are reacting against Conservative plans on Brexit. This is not a reason to change the overall approach: as I’ve argued previously, doing so would shred the reputation of the Conservative Party and it would also reduce its ability to reach into Labour’s heartlands in the Midlands and North. However, there needs to be a way of peeling off what are essentially protest votes – particularly from more affluent voters that would ordinarily at least be tempted to vote Conservative. In doing this, the Conservatives should make more of Labour’s dysfunction and duplicity on the EU – the fact their position is inconsistent, chaotic and ultimately driven by political opportunism. People don’t like the idea they’re being played by politicians; the Conservatives must show that this is exactly what’s happening.
4. Make it clear Britain needs the right sort of immigration. Immigration is an incredibly difficult policy for parties to campaign on. It is regularly at the top of the public’s priorities, but those that seek to gain from this politically have often found themselves badly burned. The Conservatives need to walk a fine line here: ensuring they’re appealing to working class and lower middle class voters that have significant concerns; but without crossing the line into populist policies that would be bad for the country, that would be wrong morally, and that would alienate affluent voters. Competitive advantage over Labour would be secured by creating a liberal policy for the right sort of immigration – one that welcomes those that do jobs the country really needs (some will be high-skilled jobs as we would recognise them, some would be simply those that are important). This would help tread that fine line and would also be far more popular than Labour’s open-door policy.
5. Whatever they are, develop some retail policies on health. As noted above, Labour have a lead with the public on healthcare; in fact, they have a massive lead. This lead is built on strong foundations and cannot be turned around easily. However, such is the importance of the policy area, it simply isn’t credible to say nothing on health, which seems to have been the Party’s approach for the last five years. The Conservatives need to research and develop popular, retail policies on healthcare that will cut through to the public. They must reassure those that currently vote Conservative but who worry about the state and future of the NHS that they’re a Party with plans to strengthen the NHS as we (pretty much) know it.
These ideas aren’t meant to be the foundation for a long-term strategy. They’re inherently short-termist and tactical. But with the stakes as high as they are – with Labour riding high with a leader that would be terrible for this country – the Conservatives need to throw the kitchen sink at Labour to drag themselves ahead in the polls.