When her political staff are in place, Liz Truss will hear how the Conservatives’ greatest electoral vulnerability lies with poorer working-class voters who are leaving the Party in droves amid concerns they’ve been abandoned as living costs surge. The Government’s survival depends on a massive package of financial support for working-class families, while medium-term success requires a strategy which amplifies the values of fairness and patriotism to show working-class voters the Conservatives are “on your side”.
These are the primary recommendations from a comprehensive new strategy note – the “New Majority” – I’ve just completed for the Centre for Policy Studies. You can read the paper here and the full tables for the polling component of the research here. You can also read Robert Colvile’s, the Director of the CPS, preview of the paper in the Sunday Times here. I will be developing the themes in the note in this column in the coming weeks, but I summarise the key points below.
1. The new Conservative strategy: “on your side”. Recent political attention has focused on wavering middle-class, Southern Remainers; however, our research shows the greatest vulnerability lies with poorer, working-class voters. Since 2019, these voters have peeled off in greatest numbers from the Party – not, generally, to Labour, but to “don’t know”. In this column, I’ve tended to dwell on affluent working-class and lower middle-class voters (I once wrote about them as “just about managing”). However, the Conservative challenge is now different: it’s about maintaining the support of the struggling working-class. The Conservatives’ guiding philosophy for the foreseeable future must be to show less-affluent voters the Party’s “on your side”.
2. How the Conservatives handle the cost-of-living crisis will determine whether they stay or go. Overwhelmingly, the most important reason for these voters’ peeling away is the Conservatives’ failure to deal with rising living costs. They don’t think the Party is on their side; the polling numbers are unambiguous: working-class voters are struggling terribly – and it’s getting worse. They feel the Party has let them down. They fear greatly what the near-future holds for them; many of them simply will not be able to pay their bills without big, big help. If the Conservatives fail to give them this support, they will be turned off voting for them forver.
3. The help the Party gives should mark the beginning of a different economic policy. There are different options open to the Government to help less affluent voters through the immediate crunch. Whichever way the Government decides to go, it’s imperative the Party develops a broader economic policy that appeals to working-class voters and demonstrates it’s “on your side”. They should reform the economy so the system is focused on delivering for ordinary consumers: holding businesses that deliver public services to account more strictly; preventing failing bigger businesses paying ludicrous salaries and dipping into reserves that must be protected for workers’ pay and pensions; giving disproportionate help to small businesses; and so on.
4. Levelling-up has an attractive new context in this new strategy. The fact many working-class towns are struggling makes the cost-of-living crisis seem worse. It makes poorer voters feel like everything is decaying. For this reason, the Government should stick with its levelling-up policy, but focus laser-like on the poorest towns to help them through the next few years. Again, this will show local residents the Party is “on your side”.
5. Appealing to working-class values of fairness and patriotism. Such an economic policy would work because it speaks to the working-class obsession with fairness. But there’s another value with a very practical application: patriotism. I’m not talking about anything aggressive or assertive – which people find weird at best and unpleasant at worst – but about the quiet, confident, low-key patriotism David Cameron used to articulate so well in his early days. Our research showed patriotism is the one thing that really unites the disparate groups within the Conservative coalition – uniting Remainers and Leavers alike, and distinguishing them from non-Conservatives. Most “cultural” issues are totally lost on most voters, including less-affluent Conservative voters. However, they expect and demand a simple, confident patriotism they don’t see in other parties.
6. The coalition will survive intact with a disproportionate focus on working-class voters. In our research, we highlighted four key groups who make up the New Majority. Very briefly, these are: less-affluent Leave voters; more affluent, traditionally-minded Leavers; less-affluent, struggling Remainers; and classically middle-class, affluent Remainers. Their views diverge on many issues; however, they all accept the need to target cost-of-living policies on the least-affluent, and they are all sympathetic to an approach which would prioritise working-class voters more broadly. Showing the Party is “on your side” will not fracture the coalition.
7. A commitment to lower taxes in principle. It remains to be seen whether the Government views tax cuts as a useful economic tool as they support people through the cost-of-living crisis. Regardless, there is widespread support for lower taxes in principle, and the Government should make it clear they are a genuine aspiration.
For struggling voters, this leadership campaign has dragged on for far too long. They’ve been angered by Government silence on the cost of living. Expectations are sky-high for the Government to help on a massive scale. We’ll know by Friday whether working-class voters are going to even give Liz Truss a chance; we’ll know by the end of the month whether there’s a strategy in place to secure working-class support for the medium-term.