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The major parties competing in Britain’s Christmas election are playing for high stakes, but it is the Tories who are taking the biggest gamble. Boris Johnson and his strategist Dominic Cummings are attempting a fundamental re-positioning of the Conservative party aimed at winning over traditional Labour voters in those seats in the Midlands and the North that have tended historically to reject the Tories. The Conservatives are hoping to present a new brand of “blue collar conservatism”, one designed to attract those in more working class constituencies who overwhelmingly voted for Leave in the 2016 referendum.
So far, this effort has amounted to a few big policy announcements. There was an extra £1.8 billion investment in the NHS and the recruitment of 20,000 police officers. This will be accompanied by a host of tougher penal measures, such as the extension of sentences for serious offenders and improvements to the UK’s prisons. Another macro-scale project is a new Towns Fund is set to provide “innovative regeneration plans” by investing a total of £3.6 billion into 100 places across England.
Here is the problem. These are certainly broad policies which will garner much support in the country, but there might not be enough voters willing to reward Johnson for them – unless they are backed up with policies designed to tackle the specific problems of the less affluent who struggle to keep their heads above water. The Towns Fund is a positive development, but it might also be criticised as amounting to little more than a re-hashing of already well-worn policies begun under the coalition government, most notably George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” scheme.
If the Conservatives are to go toe to toe with Labour, their commitment to answering the “condition of England” question will have to be more than a cynical and tokenistic ploy – it must be sincere and reflected in concrete manifesto commitments which work on a more personal and human level. Simply re-heating a version of Osbornism with a few more Keynesian treats thrown on top of it will not cut it. A token approach might, very fairly, be seen as a Brexit bribe rather than a compelling argument for a Conservative government.
Beyond the big pitches, more detail needs to emerge in the course of the Conservatives’ campaign. James Kirkup, the Director of the Social Market Foundation think tank, said in The Times on Wednesday that if Johnson is serious about re-orientating the party towards working class voters, he needs to think more deeply about the sorts of micro-scale policies which would help those on a full-time wage of £24,697 in a seat such as Bolsover. Kirkup is right.
Instead of prioritising cuts to National Insurance Contributions, Johnson could instead reverse restrictions to universal and tax credits introduced under the coalition government. He might also focus on tackling alarming rises in child poverty, champion the cause of tenants in the private rented sector, and promise to build more social housing.
The worst result for Johnson would be, as James Blagden explained in Reaction yesterday, that he ends up stranded in electoral no man’s land – too focused on Brexit to win over England’s more affluent middle classes but too weak on social policy to convince sufficient blue collar voters accustomed to voting for Labour.