Political communication is about choice. Universal appeals dilute messages absolutely, making it impossible to say anything clear, distinctive or memorable. Given the Conservatives’ primary electoral audience should be provincial working-class voters, other voters are less of a priority. It is unquestionably difficult to appeal to working-class provincial voters as well as younger, metropolitan voters in the big cities (although not impossible).
However, it is eminently possible – and desirable – to appeal both to the provincial working-class and affluent, mostly Southern, middle-class voters.
Some issues and themes are disproportionately important for provincial working-class voters: high streets; welfare reform to make work pay; and border control, for example. Some are more vital for the Southern middle-class, such as housing supply; public transport; and childcare. Obviously, it is more complex than this in practice, but the point is clear. Nevertheless, there are unquestionably issues and themes that appeal to both. Five stand out.
Economic stability. At present, rising living costs are top of most people’s concerns. However, what really unites the provincial working-class and Southern middle-class is the need for economic stability, which is somewhat different. Yes, inflation is part of the story, but so too are stable mortgage rates, steady growth, jobs, and pensions – which all rely on macroeconomic stability (and a steadily rising stock market).
While provincial working-class and Southern middle-class lives are different, they are only so by degree: both have mortgages to pay; jobs to hold down; home improvements to finance; cars to maintain; and so on. While the Government are right to think about how to throw the kitchen sink at rising living costs, they should focus too on maintaining a stable, growing economy – and there’s a political narrative here they need to construct. The Conservatives did this particularly well in 2015 and it must remain a priority.
Law and order. In recent months, as fears over rising living costs have grown, law and order has dropped down the polls. But it retains its position in the focus groups – particularly in larger towns and cities. It is not so much that people are worried about being victims of the most serious crimes, but that they are instead fed up with anti-social behaviour and low-level disorder.
Not all of this is visible, in the sense they don’t always fear crime they witness in real time; for many, it’s about the aftermath: newly-sprayed graffiti; vandalised memorials and historic buildings; remains of drug use strewn about parks and playgrounds; and so on. Across the country, regardless of the affluence of the place, there is a sense that streets and shared spaces don’t always belong to the decent majority. They appear to be, in practice, controlled by those who don’t care about order.
Healthcare. Voters across the country from different backgrounds talk about healthcare very differently but share an obsession with it. Provincial working-class voters are more likely to say they can access healthcare when they need it, but to express deep fear about the prospect of losing it. Middle-class Southern voters are more likely to say they struggle to access it, as well as expressing concern about it getting even more difficult.
While it is true to say people think the NHS is wasteful and needs “reform” (whatever that means), they need constant reassurance it isn’t going anywhere and that the Government will do everything possible to prevent it getting worse.
The environment. A few weeks ago, I wrote how the environment united working-class and middle-class voters. Many disagreed with this, arguing it merely reflected a lack of knowledge about net zero. Of course it partly reflects a lack of knowledge – but so what? On what issues of public policy – the NHS included – are voters truly knowledgeable? Hardly any. This isn’t a criticism; it just reflects ordinary voters don’t follow the ins and outs of policy development.
Fundamentally, this inattentiveness isn’t going to change. The public will not become policy wonks overnight. No matter: people across the country are united by concern for the environment – mostly on their kids’ and grandkids’ behalf – and a desire to reduce climate change. At this point, they have settled upon support for net zero as the route to achieve these goals, although another public policy strategy might take its place before too long. Either way, the environment, broadly conceived, is an issue that unites people across the country.
Patriotism. For the vast majority of working-class voters, Brexit wasn’t about patriotic affirmation, but instead about border control and better access to better public services. Similarly, the Southern middle class who opted for Remain didn’t do so out of a belief patriotism was a grubby force. In fact, quiet patriotism unites the two groups. It’s not about flag-waving and assertive patriotism, but firm belief that England is a great country with a great past, present and future.
What does this mean? Partly it means defending the country’s history against the excesses of wokery. But it also requires talking positively about the fundamentals of the country and optimistically about its future. This has always been a great strength of Boris Johnson; whether he’s the right man to do this now is another question. Nevertheless, whoever leads the party into the next election has got to keep this in mind.
Many people who profess concern for the so-called “Blue Wall” are in fact mostly concerned with metropolitan voters in inner-London and the big cities. But, for the most part, typical middle-class Southern voters have little in common with metropolitan voters. These are voters who care about tax levels, their ability to drive around, their pension pots. They’re not so different from provincial working-class voters. These voters’ lives are only different by degree. The Conservatives should be confident in crafting a governing approach and a campaign narrative that appeals for both groups.