People no longer feel guilty voting Tory. But Modernisation 2.0 must now take place
David Cameron managed to salvage the Tories from the political scrapheap, and repaired their reputation enough to get into Downing Street – albeit only in a coalition. But his work is unfinished.
The first phase of modernisation shook off the Tories’ reputation as the nasty party. Cameronism meant that middle-class people no longer felt guilty voting for a party that had previously looked homophobic, bigoted and old-fashioned. This was a big achievement, made in the teeth of opposition from the right. But there was a whole second thrust to the modernisation project that has made less progress. The “blue collar” dimension of modernisation was about giving ordinary working people a reason to vote Tory. It was about reviving the party in the north, and shaking off perceptions that the Tories were just a party for the rich. However, in polling we carried out in February (long before pastygate or the changes to the top rate of tax), two-thirds of voters still thought the party “looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people”. Even a quarter of Tory voters agreed.
People talk about a north-south divide. But the Tories actually do well in the rural and suburban bits of the north. Their problem is specifically in the great northern cities, which remain Tory-free zones. Despite the party’s revival elsewhere, there are still no Tories on city councils like those of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle. Having been wiped out in the 1990s, it is difficult to ever recover: the Lib Dems became the official opposition to Labour. Being stuck in third place is very self-reinforcing, because no councillors means no activists, and that makes it hard to win seats at general elections.
But Nick Clegg’s party is now struggling in the north. Its problems could offer the Tories a foot in the door. But to seize that opportunity and start rebuilding in the northern cities, they have to embrace a whole new round of change. You could call it modernisation 2.0.
What would it look like? Firstly, the Conservatives need to look more like the nation as a whole. A new YouGov poll for Policy Exchange asked people how the Tories need to change. Voters want the party to field more candidates who are working class, and have business experience outside politics. Tory swing voters in the north also think the party urgently needs more northern voices. This matters, because if you take people doing identical jobs in the north and the south, our poll shows that people in the north are much more likely to describe themselves as working class. Voters now think even Labour is too middle class, and that problem is even more acute for the Conservatives.
Policy needs to change too. Voters’ most important priority is to get the economy moving and get people off the dole. One popular way to reduce unemployment would be to increase work requirements for welfare claimants. Attitudes to welfare have been hardening for a decade, and four out of five of us think people who have been out of work for a year, and are able to work, should be made to do community work for their benefits. Deployed in a targeted way, such “workfare” programmes could radically reduce unemployment, as they have in other countries.
Higher unemployment in northern cities explains a lot of the north-south divide in voting patterns. So getting dole queues down is also the key to the Tories doing better in the northern cities.
Ask people about their own lives and the number one issue is the cost of living – particularly for people in the north. People are gobsmacked by soaring electricity and fuel bills, and think politicians don’t understand the pressure they are feeling. Reforming energy environmental policy could hold people’s bills down to the tune of hundreds of pounds a year, because current policy wastes so much money on the most expensive green technologies.
How could the government tackle poverty when it has no money? Voters overwhelmingly think the real way to fight poverty is to tackle the root causes, like educational failure, rather than spend more on benefits. The government should pilot a successor to Labour’s Sure Start programme. Despite billions spent, its impact on poor children’s readiness for school has been disappointing. US early intervention projects that have really made a difference, like Perry Preschool, or the Abecedarian project, look very different to Sure Start. They’re much more about intensive early education, while Sure Start has always suffered from having too many different goals, and lacking focus. A substantial pilot of a Sure Start successor would be a declaration of intent.
Voters would love tougher action on crime, but fear the government won’t deliver. Again, the deficit makes things harder, but the government could make some symbolic first steps. How about introducing much tougher penalties for hate crimes? After all, when there is disorder and crime it is not the rich or strong who suffer, but the weak, the poor, and those who are “different”. It would be tough and fair. These are the values that should shape the next phase of tory modernisation.
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