I just got home from the ConHome Victory2015 conference. For the first time since 2004, I am not going to the Conservative conference next weekend – which is in itself an interesting indicator of lots of things, though maybe I might try and go (but I was told today it’s oversubscribed so who knows).
One of the many reasons ConservativeHome is so very successful (aside form the great news summary, the thought-provoking articles and the factual and inner wonkery information that you don’t get anywhere else) is the very personal touch of Tim Montgomerie. I like Tim a lot and think that ConHome is what it is today because of him and his vision and dedication. I think the most decisive factor, though, is that the people who read and interact with ConHome think that he is on their side.
That being on your side thing is also the Conservatives’ biggest challenge for the next election (and all the time up till then, and beyond). Every poll you care to look at (and we looked at a lot today from lordashcroftpolls.com, but the same can be seen from YouGov and I’m sure others) demonstrates that today, people do not think that the Conservatives are on their side, understand their lives, care about the things they care about.
There were four panels this afternoon, on how to win votes from women, BME voters, blue-collar voters and in the North. I think we are wrong to think in quite those little boxes because the problem underlying all of it is that people think a) we don’t like them, and b) we aren’t relevant to them.
I suppose you’d expect me to say this but nothing could be further from the truth in reality. However the perception is that we are only about the southern, rich, white, male, middle-class vote. Part of the reason for that is that we don’t talk about the things we are doing for ordinary voters living ordinary lives that aren’t affected by paying a 50p rate of tax, or need a postal vote because they’re suddenly flying off to do some deal in South America, or have the time to contemplate the constitutional implications of the division of responsibility between the various democratic institutions we are part of.
We talk about ‘them’ a lot, rather than us. We complain that we don’t get a fair hearing but we often don’t bother to try to speak out*. We whinge that our associations are ageing and don’t, or won’t, or can’t do what the central party feels it needs, but have we really gone on the offensive to bring new people in in new ways? We spend a lot of time talking about opportunity and hard work – but the real problem is that for many people, the rules of the game are different depending on your background or wealth or location. The rules are not the same for everyone – and that’s what (as Alex Massie has argued and as Theresa May sort of said in her speech today) we as Conservatives should be aiming for.
Only when we absorb why people think we are not on their side can we start to make inroads into changing that perception. It is no use shouting louder – we have to be smarter. Grant Shapps made the great argument that engagement, on the ground, with people, is the only way to earn the trust and respect to eventually win votes. But it has to start with having something coherent, concrete and provable to engage about. That starts with the central party and its machinery (which I’ll come back to another day). Perhaps the most salient thing that I noticed today was that, in the last session on Election Winning Ideas for 2015, every question was about UKIP, of the top five policies, 4 of the 5 are underway, and the top five were immigration, tax, tax, tax and Europe. Some of those were about being on people’s side if you squint although they were very skewed . But they were mostly the same old Tory complaints. And that is what we need to broaden. We need new ways to engage with new voters, those who think we abandoned them and those who think we don’t care. That is the only way that we will gain enough votes at the next election to do the things we believe are right.