Thursday 23 January 2020

Can the Tories Keep Their Working Class Voters?

It wasn't just Labour who were blind sided by the general election result. Despite the polls being broadly correct (on this occasion), the Tories did not expect to advance as far as they did into the former Labour strongholds. Even though that was what their strategy set out to achieve, and was plain as day for anyone who cared to look. But in an uncharacteristic moment of honest reflection, Boris Johnson afterward acknowledged that he understood how many hundreds of thousands of Labour voters had lent the Tories their votes conditionally on getting Brexit done. Therefore one would assume come 2024 that we'll see a drift back, but superficially their job is much easier than the daunting task before Labour: the Tories simply have to keep hold of enough of these seats to secure Johnson a second term. The question then is how can they keep a healthy chunk of these voters on board?

Forget for a moment the guff about 12th December being a working class rebellion. It was primarily a revolt of the old and the retired as whole swathes of these voters protested against Labour in defence of their referendum vote, and objection to Labour's leadership. Meanwhile, Labour's majority against actual working people remained - though here too the party fell back thanks to the Brexit wedge. Nevertheless, this issue is starting to concentrate Conservative minds. Are the Tories going to emulate the example of their Stoke-on-Trent colleagues and embrace blue Keynesianism, or try something else?

This is what James Frayne of right wing spinners, Public First, addresses in his meditation on the new Tory voters. Here, James tackles a number of myths said to be circulating in the Commons tearooms that might colour the party's future strategy. Stuff like all working class people are poor, all aspire to be "successful" in Tory terms, are gung-ho for a Johnson-led culture war, and thinking anywhere north of Watford as basically the same. Much more politically interesting, however, are his comments on social security, public transport, place, and tax cuts vs better public services.

James cautions against being timid on welfare reform in the mistaken view the Tories' new voters are disproportionately dependent on it. Not so, he argues, as most people's experience of the system is filtered through the one or two people they know who game the system. On public transport, the Tories are forgetting that not only do most not live near a railway station but "vast numbers" don't even live near a bus top, so no need to worry - it's just about adequate as is. On town centres people, apparently, prefer to spend time in them and don't fancy the "inconvenience" and limited range available in high street shopping, and lastly these voters are more amenable to tax cutting messages because of the perception of waste in the public sector and the NHS.

This might seem strange, but I'm quite pleased with these conclusions. Because what we have here is a strategist the Tories listen to fundamentally misrecognising their new voters. He's not the first to have done so as others who've directly benefited from the blue wave have as well. Number one, it is pensioners who disproportionately rely on social security and as they were protected by the Tories in the Dave years, the self-perception of invincibility granted by the large majority might see cuts in this direction. Number two, I don't know how often James has travelled to the so-called red wall seats, but living in Stoke Central - which is similar demographically to all those other seats won - I can tell him bus stops are not as rare as a Pret outside of London. Even in the old pit village I grew up in we were familiar with this concept. What he doesn't understand is older people tend to be more dependent on them and, far from bus services being in danger of expansion, routes continue to get cancelled right, left, and centre. Which brings us to the high street. Younger people might like hanging about in coffee shops and pricing up clothes, games, and whatnot but older people do like their high streets, prefer the department store and chain retail to shopping on Amazon, and can be found pottering about the local market (I can only assume James hasn't watched many BBC vox pops these last four years). And last of all, when it comes to tax cuts vs public services, the point comes when dependence on public services and the NHS outweigh the marginal savings changes to tax thresholds make. Reducing spending here is a harm that falls harder on the Tories' support.

Therefore James's recommendation to the Tories to, effectively, do nothing to help their new support is not only complacent, it also does not appreciate that, weirdly, many of those voters went for the Tories because they offered a change. One of Labour's many failures was allowing Johnson to present himself as a break with the previous decade in government, when this is obviously false. Having got rid of Labour MPs who "did nothing" there is an expectation the Tories will try for their new areas. They expect to see more funding in the health service, better public services, more houses and better jobs for their kids and grandkids, and less obvious signs of social dereliction, like empty brownfield sites, vacant shops, dilapidated buildings, and the blight of homelessness. If the Tories don't deliver and, crucially, aren't seen to be delivering, then Labour has the break it needs to finally contest their hegemony over older voters.

Can the Tories keep their working class new older voters? If this is their blueprint, the happy answer to that is 'extremely doubtful'.

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SpiritSkill said...

I wonder how masochistic these voters may be?

Jimbo said...

We will soon find out. Guardian today reports 37 of these new Tory seats will see funding cuts. Not that I wish ill on those that depend on services that are due to be cut. Oh well.