Europe is a sideshow to our economic problems
Luke Springthorpe analyses the polling and comes to the conclusion that it's time the Tories renewed their focus on Britain's economic problems
The soul searching amongst activists and elected officials at all levels of the Conservative Party has accelerated at an uncomfortable pace for the Conservative leadership.
Taken at face value, it’s tempting to reach the conclusion that finding the right message on Europe is the key to winning back UKIP voters and achieving electoral success. If we delve a little deeper, however, we find that the situation isn’t quite that clear.
For some time now, the polls have given a whiff of something foul for the Conservatives, who are quite literally shedding votes left and right. Leaving aside for one moment the recent localised UKIP surge, the national polling data has been revealing some very troubling trends. Briefly, these can be summarised as follows:
· The Conservative Party has been polling very poorly amongst female voters. While the Conservatives had a 10 percent edge over Labour with women voters in the 1992 General Election, polls now suggest Labour has anything up to a 26 percent advantage over the Conservative Party amongst women voters. The evidence shows that the most recent slump is owing to a sharp decline in support from middle income women in particular (i.e. C1 & C2);
· The Conservative Party suffers from having the smallest pool of voters who are even prepared to entertain the idea of voting Conservative;
· The party performs woefully at winning support from ethnic minority voters, who form a substantial component of the electorate in inner city areas. The Conservative Party won just 16 percent of the ethnic minority vote in 2010;
These are the “old problems”, if you will, and explain the rationale behind David Cameron’s detoxification strategy.
It was, in essence, the British Right’s answer to the 'Third Way' and had some parallels with George W Bush’s brand of “compassionate conservatism” in America. Tough rhetoric on issues such as immigration were binned, the candidate 'A list' was drafted, policy was realigned to be more socially liberal, and it was all topped off with a new logo.
The problem is that it hasn’t worked. These groups still aren’t voting Conservative in sufficient numbers, and in the case of the first two points, the problem has seemingly become even more pronounced.
Having to carry the can for cuts at a time when the standard of living has been falling at worst and flat lining at the best of times has once again seen the Conservative Party being typecast as the bad guys in the Westminster sitcom. In the case of female voters, they have been hardest hit by changes to welfare (such as child benefit cuts and raising the state pension age for women) and public sector job losses. This surely explains the sharp drop in support amongst the C1 & C2 category of women.
The unfortunate reality is that in the short term, the feeling of being worse off will lead to reluctance to cast a vote for the Conservatives. At worst, it could leave a lingering bad memory that the Conservatives were the ones who added to the misery. True or not, it’s a message Ed Balls et al have been as effective at hammering home in to the public consciousness in a similar manner to how the Conservatives were in pushing their case for deficit reduction in the run up to 2010. That Ed Milliband & Balls are now more trusted to run the economy than Cameron & Osborne (52 percent against 48 percent) is a testament to this.
The economic reality is further worsened by people’s perceptions of the Conservatives. Whilst David Cameron and Osborne have boosted the Conservative Party in its perceived likelihood to “look after the interests of people like us” from its rock bottom levels in the late 80s and early 90s (now 29 percent against 9 percent in 1989), this compares poorly to Labour.
The Conservatives are far more likely to be seen as extreme, out of date, and less likely to understand the problems facing the country.
These, in very broad terms, are the problems that are dogging the Conservatives to their ‘left’. Tough action on out of work benefits may well be popular, but reductions to in work benefits have taken a toll on those in the middle who don’t fit in to the category of being idle. Throw in to the mix other measures such as the sharp reductions in the lifetime annual allowance for pensions and you have a concoction that doesn’t taste very sweet to many ordinary voters.
It is these issues that Labour will be going on the offensive with in the run up to the election to capitalise on the popular notion amongst the electorate that Labour is on their side.
Meanwhile, the rise of UKIP at the expense of the Conservative Party (with anywhere between 50 - 60 percent of its voters having voted Conservative in 2010) has had the Tories scuttling back to cover their right flank.
One needs look no further than the polls to understand why the Conservatives have been cranking up the volume on out of work benefits, immigration and Europe. These are all issues that rank high amongst the concerns of your average UKIP voter, and I would go as far as contending that Britain’s future in the European Union & immigration are intertwined when one considers that the bulk of new arrivals in the UK are from Europe.
Perhaps most interesting is that the average UKIP voter is materially less well off than your average Labour and Conservative voter. That, combined with the fact that they are generally the most negative about how they fared economically over the last decade as well as the most pessimistic about their own prospects for the next decade suggests that UKIP voters are, in fact, people with a genuine gripe that doesn’t simply boil down to being 'xenophobic' or having a distaste for the politics of Brussels.
They are the “squeezed middle” who traditionally buy in to the Conservative Party message of hard work and aspiration, but feel sapped of that very aspiration. They feel the Labour government left them no better off, are feeling squeezed by the Conservative-led government, and don’t believe that the policies being enacted will do much to improve their prospects in the long term. So they have turned to UKIP.
Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft highlighted the perception that is prevalent amongst UKIP voters who desire a party that “says things that need to be said but others are scared to say”. They are also more likely to be both elderly and male than voters of the main parties. Seen in this way, the high priority of immigration makes more sense. For working males at the lower end of the income spectrum, they are likely to be the ones finding themselves in direct competition for jobs with workers from Eastern Europe and potentially facing downward pressure on their wages as a result of this competition.
For more elderly voters, the strain of providing the necessary additional local services that are necessitated by immigration may well come at the expense of large social care budgets- something that many will have paid considerable tax contributions towards. Pensioners are also likely to have felt a squeeze on their pension income, with very low annuity rates and income produced by deposit accounts and gilts at an all-time low. This is borne out when we see that UKIP voters place the economy as their highest concern above all else, compared to fifth for Europe.
All this brings us in a full circle to what is at the nub of the concern of voters that the Conservative Party is losing to both its Left and Right.
Whether it is women feeling the pinch of welfare cuts, a male construction worker feeling the heat of competition in his labour market or pensioners feeling aggrieved about not living the comfortable retirement they worked hard for, it is apparent that a lot of the aggravation with the main party’s stems from economic concerns. The significance of delivering on the economy is exemplified by its current significance to every voter, with Ashcroft polling also highlighting that all ethnic groups place the economy, jobs, unemployment & growth as their highest priority by a margin typically in the region of 50 percent.
To this end, the Conservatives need to avoid being overly side-tracked by talking too much about hobby horses such as Europe, which is incidentally an area of policy where it’s been suggested the pro-European Labour party is seen as having the best policies (25 percent versus 21 percent for the Conservatives and 16 percent for UKIP).
Instead, the Conservative Party needs to maintain a relentless focus on the debate of how we drive down the cost of living and improve living standards over the long term.
The relevant polling illustrates that there is more to it than just restoring growth. It’s about ensuring that the proceeds of growth benefit everyone in a fair and equitable manner, and that everyone knows the government is on their side in ensuring this happens. This is where the Labour party has firmly pitched their tent, and it is the debate that the Conservatives need to be devoting their time and resources to.
This was the success of the Conservative government(s) of 1979-97. By putting large nationalised industries out to tender, numerous small shareholders reaped big gains.The right-to-buy council houses gave people an opportunity to both own property and benefit from an increase in the value of that property. In essence, people felt the prospects of their own material circumstances were either improving or had the potential to improve in line with an improving economy by virtue of owning a stake.
Now, as then, the economy and unemployment have shot to the top of people’s concerns. Today’s Conservatives need to articulate and implement new, credible economic policies that give a stake in post-austerity growth to the many, and not just the few. Labour are committing as much time as possible to talking about “the squeezed middle”, making it clear that this will be a key battleground in the run up to the election. To let the opposition dominate the message in this area would be electoral suicide for the Conservatives.
The Conservative Party needs to articulate its vision for why it needs a second term and a majority to make the squeezed middle the prosperous middle if it’s to have any prospect of seeing off Labour. Getting it right on Europe and other peripheral issues is, of course, important and it’s crucial to respect the public’s desire for a referendum.
Let us not forget, however, that it will be a question of how convincing the Conservatives are in their economic platform and vision that will be by far the most important determinant of whether the Conservatives are sought by the electorate to govern beyond 2015.
Luke Springthorpe is Editor of Crossbow magazine, Secretary for Conservative Future and works in Wealth Management. He writes in a personal capacity
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