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David Skelton: Conservatives have a once in a generation chance of winning a good segment of the working class vote

Skelton DaveDavid Skelton of Policy Exchange provides the latest text from March 9th Victory 2015 Conference. Please follow Dave on Twitter.

64 per cent of voters agree with the statement that the Conservative Party “looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people.” That perception is one of the core reasons that the Tories haven’t won an election for almost 21 years.

A large number of working class voters, particularly the C2s and DEs of marketing speak, simply don’t think that the Tory Party understands their concerns and is merely interested in looking after the interests of the rich and privileged. If they don’t change that perception it’s hard to see how they can govern alone with a sustainable majority in the coming decades. Just as Mitt Romney lost last November because he failed the “understanding people like me” test, so the Conservatives continue to fail the “in touch” test.

However, if the Conservatives can develop a ‘blue collar’ offering, there’s a real opportunity for them to build a new electoral coalition, particularly as the working class vote looks to be more up for grabs than it’s been for generations.

There’s a general sense of disengagement from politics felt in many working class areas, with a belief that Tories don’t understand and that Labour have drifted away from their roots. As part of our Northern Lights research, some 86 per cent of working class voters agree that “politicians don’t understand the real world at all”.

This disengagement has meant that many working class people have stopped voting altogether, with the ‘class gap’ in voting becoming a chasm. In 1992, the voting gap between the proportion of professionals who voted and the skilled working class who voted was eight per cent. By 2010, this gap had increased to 18 per cent.

Labour’s once solid base of working class support seems to be foundering – as the party becomes more middle class in terms of voters, members and leadership. Its share of the skilled working class vote, which had been higher than 50 per cent in Tony Blair’s first two election victories, plummeted to 29 per cent in 2010. And Labour’s membership has also become more metropolitan. At the last leadership election, only 310 ballots were distributed in Blaenau Gwent, once represented by Labour giants, Michael Foot and Nye Bevan, whilst 991 were sent out in Islington North.

This, alongside the potential electoral collapse of the Liberal Democrats in the North and Midlands,  creates an opportunity for the Conservatives to build a new base of working class support. But to take advantage of this opportunity, they need to develop a policy offering that appeals to hard pressed voters.

Our research has shown that by far the biggest concern for most ordinary voters is the cost of living. The cost of energy, the cost of fuel, the cost of housing and the cost of travel are all seen as stretching pay packets to their limits. The freeze in fuel duty was a step in the right direction, but politicians have to go further to show that they understand  the pressures facing working people and have policies designed to help this.

Government could cut energy bills  by an average of £400 a year per household by creating a level playing field for emerging technologies, rather than subsidising technologies like offshore wind. Allowing cities to expand by reforming the planning laws could help to tackle the housing crisis and reduce the amount paid in mortgage and rent payments by working people.

Conservatives also need to challenge some perceptions. In many Northern towns and cities, they’re still associated with deindustrialisation. That’s why it’s so important that they become associated with job creation and have a real and ambitious vision for Northern growth and renewal, including as part of a modern industrial policy.

They should also remember that there are 6.8 million trade union members in the UK and almost 6 million public sector workers. If the Conservatives want to win marginal seats in the North and the Midlands, they should think carefully before using language seen as demonising the public sector or trade union members.

For the sake of their long-term political survival, Conservatives need to appeal to working class voters. This isn’t going to easy. The reputation of being the ‘party of the rich’ is a long-held one and will be difficult to shake off. But, as the centre-right Moderate Party in Sweden, who flourished after they started billing themselves as the ‘workers’ party’ over a decade ago, has shown long held perceptions can be shaken off. With the right mix of language, policies and people, Conservatives have a once in a generation chance of winning a good segment of the working class vote.


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