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Benedict Surtees: The Conservatives' Blue Collar Breakthrough

by Benedict Surtees

Screen shot 2010-09-24 at 16.41.23 Since the General Election, assessments of the Conservative Party’s campaign have tended to centre on the party’s failure to secure a parliamentary majority. This focus isn’t especially surprising: as ConservativeHome’s own review of the campaign stressed, Conservatives enjoyed a number of advantages during the campaign that made the inconclusive result as puzzling as much as disappointing.

Nonetheless, in examining the Party’s election campaign it is important that the significant successes achieved by the Party are not obscured by the wider failure to win an outright parliamentary majority.

CCHQ’s own assessment of the election campaign has highlighted the Conservatives’ failure to make significant inroads amongst public sector workers, ethnic minorities and voters in Scotland. Despite falling short with some sections of the electorate, the party did however make significant progress amongst one vital group of voters, namely aspirant, blue-collar voters in the South and Midlands.

While the General Election saw Labour hold key Tory targets such as Hammersmith, Stirling and Bradford West, huge swings saw tougher prospects such as Cannock Chase, Dover and North West Leicestershire wrenched from Labour.  That the Conservatives emerged as the largest single party after 6th May can, in large part, be put down to the Party’s success (driven by local as well as national campaigns) amongst this critical section of the electorate.

This success amongst aspirational voters is nothing new. ConservativeHome identified the importance of building support amongst the ‘striving classes’ as long ago as 2005, and it has been a recurrent and welcome theme throughout David Cameron’s leadership. Going further back, from Disraeli’s “Angels in Marble” and Sailsbury’s “Beer and Britannia” right through to Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” policy, garnering support amongst lower and middle income voters has been a key component of Conservative electoral strategy for the best part of 150 years. Even in the party’s nadirs of 2001 and 2005, Conservatives saw their most encouraging results amongst voters in the C1 and C2 socio-economic groups.

More recently, in the run up to the 2010 general election, local, European and parliamentary by-elections all demonstrated the significant inroads the Party was making with these voters - a success that typically contrasted with the Party’s failure to land high profile targets in the big northern cities and Scotland.  Indeed in some of these areas Conservative support has actually gone backwards.

The Conservatives' success amongst a group of voters who have classically attached a greater priority to issues such as immigration and cutting the tax burden, immediately throws up the frustrating prospect that a greater emphasis on these issues might have produced an even better result. Having said that, there is of course no real way of assessing what difference it might have made and, more importantly, no way of telling how other voters would have reacted. 

The more immediate conundrum now faced by Conservatives is how to adapt their policy agenda in government to entrench support amongst these voters. The specific challenge for Conservative policy makers is how to balance placating these new found supporters while working to broaden the Party’s base of support and, at the same time, sustain the Coalition. The most obvious risk of adopting a more populist policy agenda is that it could lead to a clash within the coalition, and hurt efforts to widen the party’s base of support beyond that which it achieved at the General Election. 

A dash to the populist right, however, seems unlikely - not least because it would fail to deliver the clear majority the party aspires to. In order to construct an election winning coalition (or at least one than can win an election outright), Conservatives must work to expand their base of support amongst those groups that remained unconvinced last time round.

The Party’s success with middle and lower income voters in the South and Midlands will have important implications both for the policy agenda it pursues in government and its future electoral strategy. Despite this, it should not be allowed to detract from the aim of widening the Party’s base of support. CCHQ is right to draw attention to the disappointing lack of progress amongst large sections of the electorate and therefore expanding Conservative support amongst these groups remains critical to the Party’s long term future.  The challenge over the next five years will be achieving this, while cementing the gains the Party has already made amongst a vital section of the electorate.

Benedict Surtees is a former Conservative Party Agent who is currently working on a Masters degree at Oxford focusing on the way in which changes in Party organisation are influencing approaches towards constituency campaigning in Britain.


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