Can the Tories really woo Labour Leavers?

The party of Thatcher and austerity will need to change economic course to win over Labour voters.

Rakib Ehsan

Topics Brexit Politics UK

It seems the UK is on the verge of another General Election.

Yet, for all the chaos within the Conservative Party, and the government suffering a spate of defeats in the Commons, the party is still well positioned in the polls. However, we should remember that large poll leads can quickly evaporate by the time it comes to election day.

There are suggestions that the Conservative Party’s clearest route to a future workable parliamentary majority lies in winning Leave-voting, but currently Labour-held constituencies. The argument goes that because Labour is now part of a pro-Remain, anti-democracy cartel of parties who view working-class Brexit voters as an inconvenience, the Tories, as the pro-Brexit party, have been presented with a golden opportunity to make significant inroads in traditional Labour territory.

Make no mistake, this is a potentially defining moment not only for the Conservative Party, but also for British politics at large. But if the Tories think heralding the virtues of the market is going to win them a parliamentary majority in the current political climate, they can dream on. The Labour-held constituencies the Tories could win lie in the Leave-voting, traditional Labour heartlands of northern England, the provincial Midlands and Wales. This includes a swathe of communities that have struggled during three decades of Thatcherite neoliberal orthodoxy, and, more recently, Tory-led austerity. This is an uncomfortable truth for small-state, market-liberal types in the Tory party.

The Conservative Party is also at risk of suffering serious losses to the resurgent Liberal Democrats, a party just itching to make high-profile gains from the Tories in middle-class, white-collar Remainia. Places such as the Hertfordshire commuter city of St Albans – which has never been represented by a Liberal Democrat MP but delivered a Remain vote of 62.7 per cent – are very much in play among a raft of potential blue-to-yellow conversions.

Despite establishing itself as the ‘true’ pro-unionist, anti-SNP party, the Conservatives have now lost the charismatic leadership of Ruth Davidson in Remain-voting Scotland. The only way out for the Conservatives is to be a civic-nationalist, pro-Brexit party which primarily appeals to the Leave-voting, Labour-leaning areas in England and Wales, but a pro-Brexit party that is economically social-democratic as well as being socio-culturally conservative.

This is to be a party that offers an ambitious infrastructure programme for the regions; that understands feelings of economic insecurity in struggling communities; that respects the socially conservative intuitions prevalent in the provinces when it comes to immigration and multiculturalism; and that robustly pushes back on the regressive identity politics promoted by a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

It should be a party that pursues a ‘security-oriented’ approach to issues such as crime and domestic terrorism, strengthening police powers and toughening up prison sentences; a party that provides a provincial alternative to the cosmopolitan rights-based leftism of Corbyn’s Labour; a party that, above all, defends democracy against an anti-democracy cartel of Remain parties.

Economically, the Conservatives have little choice but to take this route. Labour will be beyond relentless in portraying Johnson as a blithering, privileged buffoon leading a party all too eager to re-mould the UK into a low-tax ‘Singapore-on-the-Thames’ business haven. A post-Brexit Tory Britain, Labour will contend, will be a country where the balance of power and influence in the labour market is shifted further away from the worker and further towards the bosses. Depicting the Tories as an uncaring, ruthlessly free-market party, keen to cut the state down to the bone, will lie at the centre of Labour’s campaign strategy.

And Labour’s move makes sense. Pro-Brexit working-class voters in post-industrial communities in northern England and the provincial Midlands may be anxious over immigration and cultural diversity, but they are also anxious over free-market capitalism and the quality of public services. This is the politics of economic and cultural security. And while it may be easier for the Conservatives to meet pro-Brexit Labour voters living in working-class communities on shared cultural ground, shared economic ground will be harder to find.

Conservatives would be mistaken to believe that their electoral losses in middle-class areas will be automatically offset by gains in working-class Brexitland. Will pro-Leave, working-class, habitual Labour voters, many of whom have seen their communities hollowed out by Thatcherism and who have struggled to cope with cutbacks in government expenditure, really pledge their support to the Conservatives, purely on the basis of Brexit? While an electoral pact could see the Tories allowing the Brexit Party to have a ‘free run’ in some Leave-voting, Labour-held seats, this carries risks. The Brexit Party is still very much in its infancy, and labelling itself in its own constitution as a ‘classical liberal’ party, in favour of low taxes and a small state, is not ideal if it is seeking to make inroads in communities wanting a more statist, protectionist economic approach.

The Conservative Party has not won a parliamentary majority exceeding 22 seats for more than 32 years. By removing the whip from MPs who wanted to delay the Brexit process, the PM has unquestionably strengthened his party’s pro-Brexit credentials. But a lot more work has to be done if the Conservatives are to win the hearts and minds of disenfranchised, pro-Leave Labour voters. People living in communities which have suffered under decades of Thatcherite neoliberal orthodoxy know too well the socially damaging effects of austerity. They may well feel abandoned by Labour, but they are by no means ripe for a conversion to Conservatism.

In order to be able to achieve this, the Tories will have to embrace serious programmatic change on the economy, and rethink their broader approach to government intervention, economic protectionism, and labour-market relations. Even then, the question remains: is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – a quintessential metropolitan liberal who has repeatedly extolled the supposedly liberating virtues of free-market capitalism as well as previously floating the idea of an amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants – the best man to lead such a Conservative Party charge to park its tanks on Labour’s traditional lawns?

There is of course a wonderfully delicious irony to all of this. The Conservative Party’s electoral fortunes now appear to rest on sections of the UK electorate it has often showed a spectacularly dismissive attitude towards – the habitually Labour-voting working classes. Many of whom are instinctively anti-privatisation, care deeply about public services, desire a strengthening of workers’ rights, and see trade unions as a force for good.

But if there is a central lesson British party-political history has taught us, it is this: the British Conservative Party has proven itself successful at reinventing itself when electoral circumstances seriously call for it.

Whether a policy reset of such major proportions is a bridge too far remains to be seen.

Dr Rakib Ehsan is a spiked columnist and a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Follow him on twitter: @rakibehsan

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Marvin Jones

17th September 2019 at 3:25 pm

With all the claims of the Brexiteers about how many billions we could save ourselves when we leave the EU, then one way to solve the seasonal low paid workers is this. The farmers and fruit and veg growers who need these workers desperately, must be helped by the government to supply the workers with good wages and accommodation, good enough that they will not be entitled to ANY benefits. NOW! let’s leave asap!

A Game

16th September 2019 at 2:31 am

I think the impediments to the Tories achieving the goal of those Labour seats are accurate, the suggestions for an approach are accurate.
I can only add, it has to be made very clear that to achieve this one-off, once in a lifetime opportunity, Brexit, people must vote with the party/parties who agree with their vote and want to deliver.
Back that up with the policies they have for jobs/infrastructure, that they want to deliver… and then if they have failed, Labour awaits them for the rest of their lives. That Labour has betrayed them, they are allowed to stray to get this one issue over the line, Brexit. They need to establish that in power, delivering on their referendum vote, the voters’ trust won’t be betrayed by a return to Thatcherism or austerity measures. And then, you know, not betray that trust. They have to mean it. (Quick memo to BoJo – he can’t just say, over and over, X number of nurses, he has to say why. He has to say why they want to rehabilitate existing hospitals and build more… that its part of government getting money into the micro economy, etc. Its just empty when its just a bald statement.)
The added message, of course, that losing an election will clean out some of the scum from the Labour party. What those Momentum weeds have in mind for the working classes, how they see them, how they treat them… Labour voters have to know the culture of their party is in a dark place. They have to lodge a protest vote. Just this once…

Britain First

10th September 2019 at 8:24 pm

Of course the Tories can win the election. All it takes is a tsunami of strategically placed Fakebook ads which the recipient will read without knowing the source or ever seeing any counter-arguments, and the opposition won’t even know are being distributed.

Ven Oods

10th September 2019 at 5:59 pm

“The Conservative Party… has often showed a spectacularly dismissive attitude towards – the habitually Labour-voting working classes.”

As, indeed, has Labour, especially during its ‘New’ phase.

Gareth Edward KING

10th September 2019 at 5:29 pm

Maybe, I’ve been away too long from the UK but I can’t imagine that the UK would seriously want to split up into various Celtic and Anglo-Saxon fiefdoms which is what is being suggested in some posts here. None of the four constituent parts would survive long alone. I do in fact support a united Ireland should the Unionists in Northern Ireland wish to leave the Union. In that case, a No Deal Brexit is the only way otherwise the whole of Ireland could be ‘united’ but only by dint of the EU forcing such upon us. I hope that the Irish do not enforce a hard border at the behest of the EU which is what could possibly happen, surely they cannot be told to do this against the express wishes of the British government. Did Eire seek independance from British rule only to swap it for Brussels-enforced domination? They must know which side of the bread is buttered and by whom?

In Negative

10th September 2019 at 9:08 am

Talking to a mate of mine t’other day about the state of the Labour Party. Within the blink of an eye and from nowhere she replied, “I’m not voting Tory”.

Never in all my days have I heard a voice so naturally clear and certain. It was the kind of certainty that accompanies the belief that the world outside your front door will continue to exist. It’s in our nature – like the beating of a heart: You don’t vote Tory.

Francis Lee

10th September 2019 at 8:39 am

The Henry Jackson Society. Hmmm. I don’t know if Spiked editors know anything about this organization but it is the nearest thing to a fruitcake US neo-con think tank as it is possible to get. It was originally founed at Cambridge University but moved to London; its UK Luminaries include, Members of Parliament Michael Ancram, Michael Gove, Edward Vaizey, David Willetts, Denis MacShane, Fabian Hamilton, Gisela Stuart. US neocons patrons included Richard Perle, William Kristol, (Project for a New American Century) former CIA Director R. James Woolsey Jr., and former President of Lithuania Vytautas Landsbergis. The above are, among other things, keen advocates of ‘regime change’ – i.,e, bombing countries of which they disapprove.

I am all for freedom of speech but would like to know who the speakers are and what the really believe in. There are quite a number of these types of well-funded organizations doing the rounds with their hidden agendas. Fair enough. That’s politics. But I think it is advisable to probe a little deeper into these unknown entities before swallowing the message wholesale and without examination.

Ven Oods

10th September 2019 at 6:01 pm

“The above are, among other things, keen advocates of ‘regime change’ – i.,e, bombing countries of which they disapprove.”

You mean like we were conned into doing to Iraq?

A Game

16th September 2019 at 2:47 am

The article suggest hurdles the Tories would face winning Labour seats and possible solutions. You either agree or disagree or however many shades of grey in between.
Your provincial nitpicking over how clean are their “morals” in all policy areas means you are paralysed in having an opinion on an opinion, which makes you seem half-witted and extremely narrow minded.
Classic leftism fuckwittery, all the rage. Its really awful to see, naked and backward.
Spiked revealed Bercow’s past penchant for Apartheid. I guess that means you have always seen him as completely invalid as Speaker. Right? And all of those Remainers fawning over him… they are now adjacent to his Apartheid sympathies, right?

Stewart Ware

10th September 2019 at 5:59 am

Please don’t upset our beloved prime minister: his name is not Boris Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson; it is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He likes to use his second forename.

David Webb

10th September 2019 at 9:16 am

It’s not a forename; it’s a Christian name. Abandon the anti-British cultural revolution.

Ven Oods

10th September 2019 at 6:04 pm

I’m unconvinced that Boris is any more a ‘Christian’ name than is D’Wayne.

Winston Stanley

10th September 2019 at 7:30 pm

It is Bulgar in origin, a now defunct Oghur-Turkic language, from böri, “wolf”. It is as pagan as it gets. Other names that come from “wolf” include Adalwolf, Aethelwulf, Beowulf, Lovett, Lowe, Lycidas, Owein, Randel, Randolf, and Rudolf among hundreds of others. (Enjoying google.)

David Webb

10th September 2019 at 3:16 am

No, no, no. Not civic nationalism (which means “everyone with a UK passport is British”). Proper ethnonationalism is what is required. A sense that this is our country and determination that it should always be so.

Winston Stanley

10th September 2019 at 2:25 am

The TP has zero intention of reducing immigration and it has zero chance of ever being a credible anti-immigration party. TP never had any intention of reducing immigration to 10s of thousands as promised in their last three GE manifestoes. Senior Tories were always against it, as is CBI, BCC, B of E etc. TP never reduced non-EU migration, which they could have done at any point, leaving it in the 100s of thousands, and they have dumped the policy entirely now that there is a prospect that Brexit could allow them to reduce EU migration.

TP is the party of business and businesses want more workers to maintain and to expand the profit based capitalist system and that includes low skilled workers, so the signs are that the policy to reduce low skilled migration, never acted on, will also be dumped. Britain is largely a low (40%) and medium (30%) skilled economy and the state needs masses of low skilled workers.

Britain has had a sub-replacement birth rate of around 1.7 since the early 1970s after contraception and abortion were legalised and made easily available. 15% of the workforce is replenished, before any expansion, in each generation, though mass immigration and that has already been going on for 2 generations and more. Around 40% of kids born in UK are now of an immigrant background and that will only rise further. Anyone who imagines that the TP could care less about immigration is naïve and has not been paying attention. It cares about the needs of British capital and nothing else.

A diversities of cultures is a correlate of immigration, and again, the TP could not care less about that. There is in any case nothing wrong with a diversities of cultures. Ppl are free in a liberal society to have whatever culture they want and it really is none of Rakib’s business. The future of Britain is multi-ethnic and polycultural and he may as well get over that. That includes Muslims, who are free to be as “socially conservative” as they like, which Rakib indicates that he approves of in any case. TP will need to appeal to the growing migrant communities if it wants an electoral future.

The best bet to get a pro-Brexit majority after a fresh GE is a TP-Brexit Party pact to allow BP to stand in Labour seats. The historical trend is that TP is not going to win there anyway, there is too much resistance to a TP vote even among Brexiteers. They may be willing to vote BP to get Brexit done but that does not mean that they are willing to vote TP long-term. That would not matter so much in any case once the Welsh fringe, which historically votes LP, gets its independence. The important thing for TP is to get Brexit done, make a one off pact with BP to do that, otherwise the TP will be discredited and quite possibly collapse.

Rakib is correct that TP may as well forget about Scotland. The YouGov poll last week indicates that TP will lose all 13 of its Scottish seats to SNP. TP may as well forget about the Union, which is passed its sell-by date in any case. Scottish independence is virtually inevitable over the next decade and Irish unity is likely to follow, possibly also Welsh independence which now stands at 40% support. Polls indicate that most British, and most TP members, could not care less the UK. They want Brexit and, given half a chance, English independence. It is only a matter of time before TP has to face up to that reality, so it may as well strategically face up to it now.

Winston Stanley

10th September 2019 at 2:51 am

The Deltapoll of British opinion last week reinforces the last point.

Asked whether the UK government should encourage a united Ireland as a way to solve the border issue, 38% said yes and only 25% said no. 37% said that they do not know. Just 25% said no. With don’t knows removed, 60% said yes.

Among TP voters, even more, 45% said yes. Just 25% said no and 30% said don’t know. Just 25% of TP voters, asked whether the UK government should encourage a united Ireland to solve the border issue, said no. TP voters are more in favour of a united Ireland than voters as a whole.

The TP needs to accept that the UK is passed its sell-by, and that more British voters actually favour a UI, especially TP voters. TP needs to forget about UK, get Brexit done, let the LP voting Celtic fringe go its own way and reformulate its strategy for the new reality of English independence. It is an opportunity, and not a threat to the TP.

Ven Oods

10th September 2019 at 6:08 pm

“38% said yes… With don’t knows removed, 60% said yes.”

Your arithmetic has left me confused.

Winston Stanley

10th September 2019 at 6:54 pm

38% said yes and only 25% said no.

38 + 25 = 63

38 is 60.3% of 63

For TP voters: 64.2 said yes with don’t knows excluded.

Gerard Barry

10th September 2019 at 4:38 pm

If the Tories won’t reduce immigration, many voters will vote for a party that will – be it UKIP, the Brexit Party, the BMP or whoever. Just as in physics, in politics, too, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Winston Stanley

10th September 2019 at 6:13 pm

Brexit Party is posturing about immigration, they are floating a skills based system which is completely unrealistic when 40% of employment in UK is low skilled and 30% medium skilled. The UK economy is not structured around high skills, hardly any are (Japan has the highest proportion of high skilled workers.)

The UK economy is structured around mass immigration and that is not going to change. Productivity growth peaked in the mid 1970s and it has been downward ever since, to near zero over the last 10 years. The only way that British capital has been able to expand, to maintain profitability and to survive is through more workers through immigration. Mass immigration is simply locked into the capitalist system post-colonialism and especially now.

Despite the three TP manifesto promises to reduce immigration to the 10s of thousands, net immigration to the UK between 2010, when Cameron was elected, and 2018 was 2,326,000. Actual immigration during that period, not substracting emigration from the UK, was 5,311,000. With a yearly average of around 590,111, the figure for the ten year period ending 2019 is likely to be around 5,901,111.

It is ironic that some ppl try to explain it as a “Marxist” plot. British capitalism would have collapsed without mass immigration, so strictly speaking it is a counter-revolutionary policy. The CBI, BCC, B of E etc. are all adamantly in favour of a continuation of it simply b/c it is in the interests of British capital.

The British State is a capitalist state that was established when the rising bourgeoisie fought a successful revolution to take over the country during the Civil War. It is essentially a bourgeois state and it exists to service the interests of British capital. It is only secondarily a “democracy”, in so far as it is one at all. The state has a class basis and the ruling bourgeoisie wants mass immigration, regardless of what ppl want or even what they voted for a la the three TP election manifesto policies.

The other two parties that you mentioned are irrelevant, they have no chance of getting elected and one of them is virtually defunct anyway. An end to immigration would in any case collapse British capital and the society. 40% of kids born in UK are now of an immigrant background and that is only set to increase. A multi-ethnic society is the future, so everyone may as well get over that.

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