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David Skelton: Why I'm moving on - to help meet the Conservatives' northern challenge

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Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 12.33.27I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done over the past few years at Policy Exchange. We’ve really helped to set the political and the policy agenda across the board over the past few years – showing that think tanks can, and do, make a positive difference to public policy.

One of the most interesting pieces of work that we published during my time here was our paper called ‘Northern Lights’, which set out the challenges facing all political parties. The challenge for the Conservatives was set out clearly in one statistic from the report – some 64 per cent of voters believe that “the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people.”  Only 27 per cent of voters disagreed with that statement.

The Conservatives haven’t won an election for 21 years and this overwhelming perception that they are “the party of the rich” is an important, some might say the most important, reason why. Whole urban centres outside of the South of England now have no Tory representation whatsoever and the Conservatives are struggling amongst working class voters, ethnic minorities and women.  Conservatives hold only 20 of the 124 urban seats in the North and Midlands – that’s a mere 16 per cent.  And it’s these areas that will be the big battleground at the next election.

The latest You Gov poll gives Labour a 13 per cent lead. But amongst women, that lead is 17 per cent, amongst working class voters it’s 25 per cent, and the Tories trail by 28 per cent in the North. At the last election, fewer than one in eight voters of Pakistani origin voted Tory, while nearly six out of ten voted Labour. Among black voters, fewer than one in ten voted Tory and eight out of ten voted Labour.

If the Tories don’t face up to this challenge and broaden their appeal, they will face the prospect of never being able to have a sustainable period of majority government again. For the Conservatives, the challenge is that urgent and that important – they can either focus on building a lasting and broad based electoral coalition, reaching out to people who remain suspicious of the Tories, or they can become increasingly marginal political players in great swathes of the country.

That’s why I’m moving on from Policy Exchange to help set up a group dedicated to broadening the appeal of the Conservative Party. 42 per cent of the public have said that they would never vote Tory and the Conservatives have to work hard to consider why this is the case and to break down the barriers  that get in the way of people giving the Tories a hearing. Its aim will be to develop ways in which Conservatives can show, by words and by deeds, that they are on the side of the many, rather than governing in the interest of a privileged few.
And the Government does have some positive news that will appeal to voters who are still put off voting Tory.  There’s been a big growth in private sector jobs in the North East, for example. The education reforms have the explicit aim of helping young people from poorer backgrounds make the most of their potential.  But much, much more needs to be done for the Conservatives to illustrate that they understand the concerns of hard pressed voters and can win their trust and their support.

Broadening the appeal of the Conservatives beyond the South-Eastern heartland is not going to be easy. There’s no such thing as a silver bullet or a quick fix solution to the fact that the Tory vote has been dwindling for decades. But the Tory Party has shown itself over time to be thoroughly capable of adapting to broaden its base.

Disraeli, Macmillan and Thatcher all expanded the Conservative electoral coalition in their own different ways.  It’s the task of the Conservative Party today, hopefully helped by this new group, to reach out beyond its heartland to the North, to the cities, to working class voters, to ethnic minorities and to women, who have become increasingly detached from Conservatism. If the Conservatives don’t adapt and broaden their appeal, they risk increasing marginalisation. If they do look to become the natural home of the majority of Britons, the political rewards would be considerable.


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