The battle for blue collar Britain

Written by: Daniel Sage on 2 May, 2012
Filed under Democracy, Identity and Immigration

There is a quiet but important discussion happening in Conservative circles: one that – although drowned out by pasties and grannies – could have important consequences for the next election.

Put short, it is a discussion about the role of the working-class in the ongoing, and still much needed, modernisation of the Conservatives.  As commentators such as Tim Montgomerie and Neil O’Brien have recently argued, the Tories have a serious problem with working-class voters – and in particular ones in the North.

In order to complete the modernisation of the Conservatives – and be serious contenders for a 2015 majority – they argue that the Tories must seriously appeal to this group. This is what O’Brien calls ‘modernisation 2.0’, achieved via ‘blue-collar Britain’.

The theory goes something like this. Upon his election as leader, David Cameron chose a quite narrow path to modernisation. This was ‘detoxification’: making the Tory brand less ‘toxic’ by appealing to the socially liberal values of white-collar, middle-class Britain.

According to Tim Mongomerie, this was the wrong way to modernise: what Cameron needed to do was appeal to working-class voters, something which the 2010 general election showed he had been wildly unsuccessful in doing. Policy Exchange recently highlighted this failure in a fascinating new report.

In Northern Lights, the think-tank argues that the real Tory problem is the party’s redundancy in the big northern cities: Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield – the Conservative ‘deserts’. The idea of Montgomerie et al is that the Conservatives need to ditch the social liberalism and focus instead on winning over ‘blue-collar’ voters.

This is an ambitious strategy. As the Policy Exchange report shows, the Conservatives hold less than a fifth of urban constituencies in both the North and the Midlands, whilst in the Tory ‘deserts’ Conservative councillors are simply non-existent.

The scale of the Conservative working-class problem is further demonstrated in the world of football: only two Tory MPs have premier league football clubs in their constituencies.

For Labour, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that conservative thinkers still seem pretty clueless as to how the Tories can appeal to working-class voters. Montgomerie’s ideas centre mostly upon tougher immigration, more welfare reform and lower taxes, yet they will surely have to do better than this.

In particular, the Conservatives need to consider that whilst many people in their northern ‘deserts’ rely on the public sector, the Coalition continues to cultivate a deserved reputation as a slayer of public services. Whilst this remains the case, Labour might not have too much to worry about.

The bad news is twofold. First, the absence of any serious ideas does not mean an effective strategy will be completely unforthcoming. Labour should only think back to the 1980s to understand that Conservative policies can woo working-class – and historically Labour – voters. Current ideas might lack substance, and there is no real evidence that David Cameron has what it takes to woo blue-collar Britain, but the Conservatives still have three years to form an effective strategy.

The second piece of bad news is that many within Labour remain awkward – or even hostile – towards attempts to debate and deal with political disengagement in working-class communities.

Rowenna Davis recently wrote about this in a New Statesman column, arguing that Labour had to appeal to matters of the heart – such as security, community and family – as well as the head in order to genuinely re-engage with its traditional constituencies. Both the right and left of Labour feel uncomfortable with such ideas: those of  so-called ‘Blue Labour’.

While the New Labour right remain wedded to a moribund faith in markets, those on the Labour left are more comfortable talking redistribution and early intervention than family and community.

Labour’s real problem now is that a newly focused Conservative party might move fast to occupy this ground. During the New Labour years many accused the party of taking its dominance in the northern heartlands for granted and they were probably right.

Now the story is different. There is a widespread apathy and an anti-politics mood across the country: one which is strongest in working-class inner-city areas. Many people in such constituencies feel that they have been ignored by the political class for far too long. Their votes are up for grabs. It is vital Labour moves to take them.

Dan Sage is a postgraduate research student at the University of Stirling. He tweets from @djsage86.