“How can Conservatives keep hold of voters hit by the cost of living crisis?”
ConHome is not afraid of asking the tough questions, and in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had convened a high-level panel to tackle this one.
Paul Goodman, in the chair, wondered what might be learned from the short-lived Liz Truss government, which “wasn’t obviously a success”, or perhaps “somehow it was a success but we didn’t notice it at the time”.
Bim Afolami, MP for Hitchen & Harpenden, replied: “I think it’s bananas.”
“I love my colleagues dearly,” he added. “The problem is that even broken clocks can be right occasionally.”
Truss and her allies had made the mistake of being “focussed on ideology and process rather than outcomes for people”. What really matters is take-home pay.
Goodman inquired: “Is the Conference making any difference?”
Frank Soodeen, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “No. I think words are very cheap at the moment.” Politics will be moved by events, not words.
Patrick English, of YouGov, pointed out that most voters do not know the Conference is going on.
James Kanagasooriam, from Focaldata, said: “I think it’s the inflation number that matters.”
Afolami suggested “not just inflation but the movement of take-home pay”. He pointed out that for a long time median incomes “have barely moved”.
Kanagasooriam wondered if the Conservative Party has “simply let go of all the lower-income voters” it had begun to gain in 2005 under Michael Howard. He expects considerable regional variations at the next general election.
English pointed to “two different outlooks”: “the worried and suffering” and “the cautiously hopeful strugglers” – the latter are “very optimistic”.
He added that “if you own your own house outright you think that things are not that bad”. It follows that “housing could be a really powerful tool” to change people’s minds.
One could not help reflecting that the Tories demonstrated this in the 1950s, when they won three general elections in a row by promising to build 300,000 houses a year (a target adopted as a result of a rebellion at the party conference in 1950), and by actually managing to do so.
Afolami said it was “amazing how quickly” the leader of Canada’s Conservatives “has shifted younger voters behind him” by promising to get houses built.
Here was perhaps the most striking conclusion to emerge from a discussion that ranged lightly across a great variety of topics: that actions speak louder than words, and action on housing could really change minds.
But when a member of the audience pointed out that “renters are being let down” by the Government, Soodeen agreed that “there is almost nothing the Conservatives could say to young voters” about this, for the Conservatives “have chosen their side in the housing debate”.
Afolami questioned whether trust in politicians is lower than it has been in the past. He thought there is always scepticism about “these weirdos” who decide they want to order people about for the next five years.