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The road to somewheres

Can the Tories win back alienated voters?

Artillery Row

After the 1900 municipal elections in Vienna — where the left-wing, pro-working class Social Democrats were thrashed by clerical and nationalist parties — the Viennese writer Karl Kraus wrote that “adherents of the Marxist creed, which sees any victory of ideological factors over economic interest as anomalous, might learn from looking around European politics that such exceptions are practically the rule”.

No one can accuse Liz Truss of being a Marxist; no one with even a hint of red about them could have won the 2022 Margaret Thatcher lookalike competition that was the Conservative Party leadership contest. 

Our Lady of Privatisation’s effectiveness as a leitmotif betrayed the fact the Conservative Party was guilty of making the same mistake as those Viennese Marxists, however. Its offering was reduced to low tax, high growth and precious little outside reheated 40-year-old economic policies. Other than the buzzwords of “freedom” and “opportunity”, there was a singular failure to outline a vision for what a 21st century conservative Britain would look like.

Once in No.10, Truss’ entire government operated on the assumption that the future triumph of her Conservative Party would be based on the electorate prioritising their economic interest over ideological factors. This was a calculated risk, but by God was she bad at maths. 

She, like the Social Democrats, was soon taught that voters are interested in more than just resource allocation. Truss — and the Conservative Party members that elected her — have completely failed to stay connected to the post-Brexit realignment. It has cost the party dearly. “After the Fall”, a new report from Onward, shows just how disastrous this fundamental miscalculation has been.

Politics based on an economic left/right axis belong in the 20th century

For party hacks like me, the report’s words are as cruel as “I don’t love you” or “bitter’s off”: “The Conservatives are in their worst position for over a decade and a 1997 style wipeout is possible.”

So precipitous has been the Conservative collapse that more than one in three voters rate their chances of ever voting Conservative at a flat 0 per cent. Another 46 per cent of voters consider it “extremely unlikely” (less than 10 per cent). Of the seats the party gained in 2019, only three still have a majority of people considering voting Conservative rather than Labour. On every issue bar defence and Brexit, the Tories trail Labour — including on the usual Conservative safe territory of the economy. Whilst the cost of living crisis and public service quality are shown to be the key issues driving voter behaviour, the crisis is about more than any one specific issue. 

It offers an insight into the fundamental political shift of the last decade. Politics based on an economic left/right axis belong in the 20th century. Now new positions are being taken with more nationalist, social conservatives on one side and more cosmopolitan, social progressives on the other. These are the lines along which David Goodhart drew his somewheres vs anywheres

The research shows that most people belong to Goodhart’s “Somewheres”. They hold conservative social values when it comes to law and order or matters of state but in economic terms they are both interventionist and redistributive. They are happy with a tax-and-spend agenda, have little appetite for cutting either spending or taxes, and their sense of fairness means they want a government that intervenes to tackle issues like rising inequality and low pay. They don’t see freedom, as Liz Truss did, as the ultimate political virtue. They want an economy that raises the standard of living for everyone and a state that places emphasis on British values, order and stability. 

The rise in populist parties and Brexit were paroxysms of this underlying change in political alignment. They were a rejection of an establishment that people feel cannot distinguish between its own interests and the common good, and a settlement that no longer — indeed, has never — worked for them. This was also the wave of voters that backed Boris, although his ability to capitalise on this realignment was more luck than judgement. He stumbled onto a winning formula that worked as well in Stratford as it did in Stockton: a shift to the right on crime, immigration and culture mirrored by a move to the left on economics. Levelling Up may have been little more than boosterism, but it spoke to people’s desire for a fairer settlement.

This represented a seismic shift, potentially as powerful as the Reagan coalition and as long term as the Southern Strategy. This has been wasted, not only by Truss’ failure in government, but by her failure to heed Kraus’ warning — exemplified by the proposal to loosen immigration rules to boost growth (although it is a major question whether immigration has, in actual fact, made us richer). 

The party’s collapse is more a thin simmer than a rolling boil. Though the Conservatives have leaked votes these haven’t returned to Labour, whose vote is only 15 per cent higher than it was at the last election. Fewer than one in ten 2019 Tory voters have gone red again, effectively a reversal of the shift in voters from Labour to Conservative between the 2017 and 2019 election.

Rishi Sunak is uniquely placed to change this

Many of these voters had been leaving Labour for a long time, driven by a feeling that it was no longer “their party”. As Steve Rayson writes in The Fall of the Red Wall: Labour was losing Leave areas before Brexit was even a politically salient issue … Four in ten of those who voted Labour in 2010 and Leave in 2016 had already been lost to the party in 2015.” Workington Man is still not keen on returning to a party that speaks to Haringey more than it does to Hartlepool, and the Onwards research shows the vast majority of the Conservative’s lost voters have simply drifted into “Don’t Know”. If these Don’t Knows returned, the Conservatives would soon be back within touching distance of Labour.

Those Don’t Knows haven’t been driven into the arms of another. They’re simply disenchanted, apathetic, Laodicean. They can be won back, but that requires offering them more than economic competency and pork-barrel politics. Although huge investment in places like Teesside has seen life get better under the Conservatives, inflation is now well over 10 per cent, so Levelling Up funds won’t buy what they used to. The party can’t make Truss’ mistake again by relying on economic salvation to bring them back from the brink. Conservative MPs may be uncomfortable with the culturally conservative element of their appeal, but adapting to it was a core part of the 2019 success and key to any chance of another majority.

When leaders can’t see and articulate a compelling and uniting future, they fixate on who’s to blame for what’s wrong with the present. This is true across the political spectrum, and it has a trickledown effect on the rest of society. Since they joined battle, neither the Anywheres and Somewheres have been unable to see or articulate that future. They’ve been unable to define their positions except by existing in a state of perpetual opposition, labelling each other responsible for what’s wrong with the present. This sense of mutually assured demonisation was the driving factor behind the fractious nature of the Brexit debate and Boris Johnson’s premiership. The noise it generates leaves little space for anything approaching good leadership.

Rishi Sunak is uniquely placed to change this. He has economic credibility with the 2019 electorate, and his Cabinet choices indicate he recognises the importance of delivering on small-c conservative cultural issues. By stressing the importance of the 2019 manifesto, Matt Goodwin argues, “he has clearly got a grasp of the conservative electorate and who he needs to win over”.

The Tories have been resurrected more times than Jason Voorhees and saving Britain’s economy may be enough to bring it back for yet another sequel. If Rishi wants to fulfil the dream of another decade in power, he will have to provide a coherent vision of a conservative state, fit for the challenges of the 21st century. He will have to tell a story of how Britain got to where it is and where it’s heading. That is the only way that the party can stop being blamed for what’s wrong with the present.

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