Tory modernisation is again being questioned. Some Tory MPs and commentators are reacting to the poor local election results and consistently bad polling evidence by complaining about the Liberal tail wagging the Tory dog. But the truth is that most of those dissenting voices were opposed to modernisation long before the general election.
Tories should ignore calls for the whole modernisation project to be abandoned in favour of what critics call “true Conservatism”. The Tory Party needs to do much more to shed its “party of the rich” image and to connect with hard-pressed voters, but abandoning modernisation would see them running in the opposite direction to voters. Instead, they should look to update modernisation for a time of squeezing living standards, so that the Tory brand can broaden its appeal.
Tory modernisation had three key priorities. The first was to “decontaminate the brand.” The second was for the Tory Party to be seen as a party representing all of Britain, rather than just a privileged few. The third was to win an overall majority. All three goals are connected and modernisers would argue that the goal of an overall majority was always contingent on decontamination and not being seen as the party of the rich.
The next phase of Tory modernisation still has to pursue these priorities if the party is serious about winning the next election. Our recent research, Northern Lights, illustrated how much work the Conservatives have to do if they are to win in 2015. The report showed that 64% of voters believe that the Tories stand up for the rich and not for ordinary people. It also showed that 35% of voters would NEVER consider voting Tory (compared to 25% who would never consider voting Labour), meaning that the Tories, by fishing from a smaller pool of potential voters, are effectively giving Labour a ‘head start’.
If the Tories did decide to turn right, they would be taking completely the wrong lessons from last week’s elections and would be further reducing their pool of potential voters.
The biggest story of the local elections wasn’t Tory voters in the Home Counties heartlands abandoning the party because of gay marriage and Lords reform.
Instead the really big story was the Tories losing votes to Labour in crucial marginal seats in the North and Midlands that they need to win in order to gain an overall majority in 2015.
Labour made big gains from the Tories in Dudley, Birmingham, Walsall, Sunderland, Wakefield, Oldham and many other areas where the Tories need to be winning at the next general election.
Does anybody really think that a rightward lurch will attract those voters who got cold feet about voting Tory in 2010? Were there any people who were tempted to vote Tory in 2010 who didn’t because they weren’t seen as right wing enough?
In the words of Professor Philip Cowley, these voters didn’t vote Tory because, “much more significantly [than any vote for UKIP], the party’s own polling found a lingering distrust of the Conservatives among the public. When those who had considered voting Tory were asked why they had not eventually done so, the most common answers involved concerns that the party was still for the rich rather than for ordinary people.”
The Tories need to show through action not just words that their modernisation is about bread and butter issues, as well as (not instead of) things like gay marriage. Whereas Tory modernisation in 2005 was about “sharing the proceeds of growth”, in 2012 it needs to be redesigned against the backdrop of the biggest fall in real household incomes for 35 years. That is why the party has to do more to show that it understands the concerns of hard working people struggling to keep their heads above water. It needs to do something about the two principal concerns expressed by voters in our Northern Lights research – namely rising energy bills and the rocketing cost of fuel.
Take energy bills as an example. Government can help cut energy bills and meet their green targets by stopping wasting money on expensive technologies like offshore wind and shifting the focus to more cost effective ways to reduce emissions.
But the Tories should be wary of thinking that simply gathering together a few policies that poll well will result in electoral popularity. Politics simply doesn’t work like that. They need to develop a compelling, and positive, overarching narrative about what the party stands for. This narrative that appeals to hard working voters, who feel squeezed and may very well have never voted Tory before.
That also means that the Tory Party needs to do more to modernise its look and feel, so that ‘the strivers’ can fully relate to the party again. The first phase of modernisation largely considered representation in terms of gender, sexuality and ethnicity. Our research strongly suggests that the second phase needs to focus on representation in terms of class. It showed that, by some distance, potential Tory voters think the party would more reflect the country if it had more working class representatives and more MPs who had worked outside of politics.
Tory modernisation in 2005 wasn’t perfect by any means. Its deficiencies were summed up by the infamous Tatler spread. But modernisation was necessary for the Tories to become a serious force in politics again. Now it must be updated if they are to win an overall majority. Modernisation has to move from the “supper” tables of Notting Hill and Hampstead to the “tea” tables of the North and Midlands. Abandoning modernisation in favour of a turn to the right, however, would alienate the very voters that the party needs to win over.