The Tory conference missed the opportunity to win over disillusioned Labour voters like me. Here's why

This conference may have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to win millions of Labour conservatives over to the ‘dark side’.

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Missing a trick? Cameron speaks to factory workers in Warrington
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Timothy Stanley
On 5 October 2011 09:00

Throughout its history, the Conservative Party’s winning electoral strategy has been to court the working-class. The demographics of that group have altered dramatically, but the principle of stealing Labour’s natural voters has stayed the same.

In the 2015 election, there won’t be many seats left for the Tories to win in the South. The real areas of competition will be urban areas in the North and the Midlands.

This week’s Conservative conference needed to win over people like me: traditional Labour supporters who can’t stand Ed Miliband and are looking for an alternative. Ideally, it should have been as brash, populist and jingoistic as possible.

How frustrating it is, then, that this conference wasn’t aimed so much at Barrow-in-Furness as it was Kensington and Chelsea. Its tone was too genteel, too bourgeois. Cameron is pursuing an image of consensus in an age of disorder.

Maybe there’s some nobility in that, but it’s politically dense. Rather, he should play positive polarization: divide the country in two and the Conservatives will take the bigger half.

Nowhere is that truer than on the issue of Europe.

The political establishment needs to understand something about the British people: we hate Europe. It’s less to do with xenophobia than it is narcissism – we have an unshakeable conviction that we are superior to everyone else. It’s a fantasy, of course, but that isn’t the point. Resistance to being governed by foreigners is a powerful force in British history and politics.

Until recently, our narcissism has been divorced from economic reality and common sense has kept it in check. But now, the figures confirm that we were right to distrust European government all along: they really can’t organise a putsch-up in a beer hall.

And so the Conservative Party finds itself in a perfect storm where it can marry nationalism with reason and win over millions of Labour voters. According to a July poll, 42 percent of us ‘socialists’ want to leave the EU.

Alas, David Cameron has done everything he can to avoid euroscepticism dominating the agenda – to a degree that must leave the average voter baffled.

The biggest economic story at the moment is the collapse of the Eurozone, yet all we got was an attack on the Human Rights Act by Theresa May.

Rather than a clarion call for self-government, the message of the conference has been one of keeping calm and carrying on. Where any philosophical thrust has been displayed, it’s usually been of a counterproductive, liberal variety.

Hence the theme of the conference for the first few days was how pro-women David Cameron is. The tone was set with Cameron’s apology on Sunday for having made “sexist” remarks during Prime Ministers’ Questions, and it continued with a slew of female friendly photo opportunities.

Again, this is all very decent in principle, but the strategy is tone deaf.

The government’s spending cuts have disproportionately hit women working in the public sector and it is women who have noticed the subtle creep of inflation in the grocery bill. These concerns cannot be ameliorated by the fact that the Tory backbenchers now include a handful of rich women. On the contrary: their wealth and education is a sore reminder of how the vast majority of women are suffering in this recession.

In contrast, a more populist tone on areas of traditional conservative policy would certainly appeal to women. After all, they are far more conservative than men.

One issue that would win them over is Europe: according to YouGov, they are by far the more eurosceptic of the sexes. The ideal conference for the kind of woman Cameron really needs to win over (urban and Northern) would have emphasised strong families, tax-cutting for growth and a greater independence from Europe.

It probably would have talked more about immigration too, which remains Britain’s sleeper issue. A July Mori poll found that the UK has the third highest level of anti-immigration sentiment in the world: 71 percent agree with the statement that there are “too many immigrants in our country.” Only Russia and Belgium beat us on that score.

These are the hardcore issues (call them nasty if you will) that will attract Labour voters to the Conservatives. They are matters of the heart rather than the head, but they are incredibly potent.

Perhaps it just isn’t in David Cameron’s nature to manipulate them. He's a nice man, but this is a nasty epoch. Whether or not he can continue to muddle through on a mix of economic Puritanism and political correctness is doubtful.

This conference may have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to win millions of Labour conservatives over to the ‘dark side’. 

Dr Tim Stanley is a research fellow in American History at Oxford University. His latest book, a biography of Pat Buchanan, will be available from February 2012. Visit his personal website at www.timothystanley.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @timothy_stanley. 

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