Voters just want the Government to address their top priorities
February 24, 2023 1:04 pm(Updated 1:05 pm)
With less than 18 months before the next election, all major parties will be refining their messages to voters. The pre-election window to communicate with the public is narrow and getting anything wrong will lead to swift rebuke at the ballot box.
The Conservatives’ challenge is to maintain the support of Red Wall voters who flipped their allegiance at the last election, while retaining traditional support in the south. The answer for some Tories is to embrace the “culture wars” as a clear dividing line between us and Labour.
Before his promotion to Conservative deputy chairman, Lee Anderson made it clear that this was his preferred election strategy.
Speaking to New Culture Forum, he said: “There were three things that won us the election. It was nothing to do with me. It was Brexit, it was Boris, it was Corbyn – and it was as simple as that. Those three things together were a great campaign – great ingredients. At the next election we haven’t got those three things so we’ll have to think of something else. It’ll probably be a mix of culture wars and the trans debate.”
The temptation is understandable, as stoking culture wars can give the impression of straight-talking, old-fashioned values. Certain voters may be sympathetic to some of the rhetoric.
But the culture wars will not provide the electoral heft that some in the party hope for. Such an approach would risk liberal minded voters in the south of England who have, in my view, already started to drift away. Alongside this, millennial and Gen Z voters are at odds with older generations‘ stance on culture war issues. In short, when looking for a message that unites voters, wedge issues won’t work.
In the run up to the 2019 election I was working for a secretary of state, and the party leadership was torn on whether culture war issues should feature in the attack plan against Labour. Cabinet proponents argued that voters in Red Wall heartlands would resonate with these arguments, and that focusing on culture war rhetoric would differentiate the Conservative Party from the Islington Labourites that no longer spoke for voters in “left behind” constituencies.
Boris Johnson decided against it and instead the party opted for two clear messages: getting Brexit done and levelling up. During the 2019 election I went on a road trip of the UK. In Bolsover, I spoke to a retired miner, a nurse and a teacher; when all three told me they wanted to “get Brexit done” I knew we were on track for a landslide victory.
Voters just want the Government to address their top priorities. This is something that Rishi Sunak seems to have grasped, despite suggestions that he is out of touch. Of his five priorities, the first three are focussed on fixing the economy. And the most recent YouGov polling shows that 62 per cent of people list the economy as their chief concern. Understandably, people want their own lives to improve after the pressures caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Culture wars issues barely feature on the public’s list of priorities. So wading into debates about what a woman is or whether Little Britain is culturally appropriate will only detract from the vital message of economic prosperity.
Despite Labour’s poll lead, recent news that the Government ran a £5.4bn surplus in January is early vindication of the “steady as she goes” approach that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has taken to public finances. Resisting the higher-end pay demands of unions has prevented runaway inflation and a further dent in HMT funds.
Fiscal restraint creates the room for higher spending in some key areas such as childcare, which could boost economic growth.
If Hunt continues with his current approach, we can expect inflation to have fallen by the next election, and living standards to have improved. This Conservative government would then be able to present itself as the party which makes the difficult decisions which are ultimately in the nation’s economic interests.
Laying the groundwork to sell a vision of economic prosperity to the public will take time. Election guru Lynton Crosby would call this type of focussed messaging “getting the barnacles off the boat”. There is a need to stop giving air to anything which doesn’t matter in the eyes of the general public.
I have never heard a voter raise the issue of transgender rights on the doorstep. The party and its MPs must resist the temptation of wading into public culture war debates. Despite riling the commentariat and being popular with the membership, this rhetoric only clogs the airwaves.
Instead, it’s vital that Conservatives regain their lead on economic competence. Doing so will require government communications to hammer this point home at every opportunity between now and the election.
Only clear focus on how Conservatives are addressing voters’ real priorities will give us any chance of victory.
James Cowling is the Co-Founder of Next Gen Tories and Chairman of the Greenwich Conservative Federation