Thursday, 27 February 2014

Rebuilding urban conservatism isn't about working class voters


There has been much talk of how the Conservative Party should muscle its way into Labour territory and become the 'Workers' Party'. It has generated a great deal of mirth amongst nice, well-educated, middle-class left-wing pundits - the sort who think being a football supporter and drinking a pint in the local gastropub qualifies them as 'working class'. The sort of people who really don't understand the extent to which the left's authoritarian streak is displayed in its ever more strident attack on working class pleasures like drinking, smoking, burger and chips or a flutter on the horses.

Oddly I really don't think that the Conservative Party has much of a problem with its working class support. We know that, back in 1979, the votes of the skilled working classes elected Margaret Thatcher and that those voters - and their children - have stuck with the party since. And we know that Conservative support amongst the 'unskilled' working class (I dislike that term but calling them DE Social Class is even more impersonal) was at or close to its highest in 2010.

So despite the admirable efforts of David Skelton and his Renewal group, there isn't all that much more scope for increasing support from these groups. Don't get me wrong, the Party is right to talk about the living wage, about the value of trade unions and about building affordable homes. Just as important there is a strong argument in saying to working class voters that the Labour Party takes them for granted, abandoning them to the worst communities, the poorest schools and the least stable jobs.

But this will not sort out the Conservative Party's long term renewal (although it will help in getting a Conservative government in 2015) because it's not those working class voters that are the Party's problem. The problem is two other groups - ethnic minorities and the urban middle class.

On the former the problem is stark - here's Tim Wigmore setting out the issue:

BME voters are 33 per cent more likely to vote for Labour than white voters – but they are seven points less likely to vote Conservative than white voters. Unless this changes dramatically, it will be a roadblock to the Tories ever winning another election.

We know that the single indication that someone won't be a Conservative voter is that they are "Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic" (BAME as the ghastly acronym goes). And we shake our heads and ask why? It's not that the Party lacks ethnic minority MPs or that those MPs don't get attention or preferment - one of them was even discussed as a possible leadership challenger. Just as importantly those ethnic minority Tory MPs represent very safe seats places like Witham, Windsor, Stratford, Bromsgrove and were selected as candidates by an overwhelmingly white membership. The Party simply doesn't look racist in these places.

Yet go into inner-city Bradford, to East London or to Leicester and people will tell you that the Tory Party isn't for them, it's out-of-touch, elitist and, most significantly, racist. Until the Party shifts this perception - and the problem is perception not fact - then it will not get the support from among those minorities it needs. The problem is visceral, fundamental and won't be sorted from the centre. The Party has to be active in those communities. We should also shift our language on immigration - right now we're on the horns of a UKIP dilemma but this isn't a long-term issue in the way that ethnic minorities not voting for us at all is a long-term issue.

The second group may seem very different - that young urban middle class, the sort of trendy, hipster vote. The kind of people who are buying £600,000 houses in Hackney. If they've that sort of money and a belief in home ownership and hard-work then shouldn't they be voting Conservative? The problem is that they're not, they're voting anything but Conservative. Why? For many of the same reasons that those ethnic minority voters don't vote Conservative - they see the Party as out-of-touch, elitist and socially repressive.

These people didn't see the legalising of same sex marriage as a triumph for a Conservative Prime Minister. They saw the debate as a few Tories forced into accepting the change while most screamed blue murder from the side.  If we are to change this we need to start talking a different language - not gimmicks about greenery or tokenistic policy platforms - but the language of community action and involvement. And we need to be on the ground in the urban places where the young urban middle class is living, in East Dulwich, in Stoke Newington, in Chapel Allerton. The sad thing is we once were in these places but have withdrawn to the suburbs further out and to rural exurbia.

Building a genuinely national party should be the aim. And that means putting resources on the ground knowing that the fruit could be eight, ten, even twenty years before it's ripe. So long as the Conservative Party combines short-term targeting with centralised message management, we will continue to decline. We do need renewal - David Skelton is right - but that renewal is as much about presence and activity as it's about policy. And the message, instead of central and controlled, must be local and specific - we should talk directly about the concerns we hear from the communities we want to support us.

It's great that there's a campaign to change the Party. What we now need is something more than a nod of partial agreement from the leadership. We need to resource the fightback, to support the few Tories on the ground in urban England and to start listening to the voices of those urban communities.


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