The Conservatives have enacted entirely the wrong strategy for this phase of the political cycle; the policies are mostly right in principle, but it’s suicidal to push them through now.
We are where we are though, and the Party seems set to double-down on its strategy. Regardless of my personal misgivings, here are some thoughts on how best to sell such an approach, some of which I cover in detail in my recent paper for the CPS.
A free-market strategy for ordinary families and small businesses
One of the many political mistakes in the Budget was linking economic and tax reform with the benefits they’d bring banks, big businesses and the rich. It was a Budget that read like a lefty BBC screenwriter’s idea of what an evil Tory Party would do.
But real free-market economics plainly don’t have to be like this, as anyone who has even skimmed Hayek (or even Thatcher) will know.
Genuine free-market economics can and should do the following: defend the rights of ordinary consumers; put more money in the pockets of those struggling to stay in work and off benefits; help the risk-taking self-employed and small businesses survive and thrive; and promote innovative start-ups against lumbering incumbents.
Liz Truss has talked about disruption; this would have been a far bolder, more disruptive approach – and it would have carried massive public support (including, crucially, the support of the English working-class). The central economic narrative of the Government should be to show that government will deliver for growth for ordinary, working-class families in hard times.
Talk for our hard times
In the latter stages of her leadership campaign, Truss developed a narrative anchored in the hard times we’re living in; for example, she talked about cutting taxes to help families during the cost of living crisis.
Somehow, since her victory, the Party’s communications have lost this grounding; they’ve started to talk in more abstract terms about growth, rather than about these hard times; it’s all become detached from reality. They need to return to the playbook of the last days of her campaign.
Define growth through the prism of levelling-up
None of this is to say you can’t talk about growth; you can, but it needs grounding in reality. This is particularly true regarding “levelling-up”.
Personally, politically, I think the original incarnation of this policy was right – improving short-term “liveability” in declining towns. That said, there’s an attractive levelling-up narrative that taps into popular memory of what life was like – and what civic pride was like – when our towns were prosperous.
For all the pride people have in their towns, even if they’re declining, this pride is often rooted in memories of better times: when local boys and girls left school to take up apprenticeships and skilled jobs at major local employers; when bustling high streets brought life and commerce to town centres; and when local businesses had the money to pay for local sports clubs.
In places like Wolverhampton, Coventry, Stoke, Sheffield, Bradford, Sunderland – authentically working-class cities – proud memories are tied up with their cities as commercial successes.
As with the approach above, this is a narrative that would resonate with working-class voters who might simultaneously be doubtful about the merits of big business, while remembering big local employers – long gone – with fondness.
Promote start-ups and scale-ups
For working-class voters, framing reform through the prism of those struggling to get on, and through a local prism, is best.
But there’s an additional supporting narrative that I allude to above: promoting start-ups and scale-ups; most obviously in the tech sector, but elsewhere too. While this doesn’t particularly do it for working-class voters, it certainly doesn’t alienate them – and it definitely attracts younger, urban, better-off voters.
The point is this: it’s a way of talking about reforms – and indeed specific sectors and even businesses – which might be abstract to some voters, but which is nonetheless pleasing because it positions it all against the image of “big business” that most voters dislike.
Be intensely practical
There are some policies that might make ordinary voters queasy, but which nonetheless might be the right things to do. As I wrote last time, there’s a good case removing the bankers’ bonus cap and freezing corporation tax fall into this category.
The Government has probably messed these announcements up too badly for them to recover any vague popular acceptance, but this really just proves the point: you can sell these sorts of policies if you do so very practically, and with a degree of humility. People would have accepted them originally if the Government had admitted they seem a bit grim, but will definitely bring in new jobs and more revenue.
It’s got to look to voters as if policies are being driven by a cold analysis of the numbers, not by having read a few radical books at university. (It should also go without saying you can’t look like you’re enjoying it all).
Make the negative case for a small state
I know I’ve written about this a lot in the past, but it’s yet again time to point this out: the English aren’t optimistic and freedom-loving; they’re mostly pessimistic and sceptical. You can’t sell a small state by telling them you’re unleashing their potential; rather, you must sell a small state by stressing politicians are mostly clueless on most issues and shouldn’t be trusted with the public’s money or with big decisions.
I simplify, somewhat, for effect; but the fact remains: most people doubt the wisdom of politicians and therefore instinctively respond to the suggestion ordinary families know better than London (or even local) politicians how to spend their own money.
This line has occasionally been used to devastating effect by small-c conservative campaigns, but remains completely un-used by mainstream British politicians.
It’s easy to write off the importance of opinion research and communications when you’re pushing through a bold agenda – as if any accommodation with reality is somehow a betrayal of the cause. This is wrong (as Jeremy Corbyn knows).
If you care passionately about victory, you must take communications and campaigns seriously. We’re only out of the EU now because Dominic Cummings created a research-driven campaign (even if others shifted the dial in the years before).
It’s beyond frustrating to see the reputation of free-market policies trashed because of mistakes that could have been avoided with some basic research and planning.