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By Ben Guerin
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Tackling Voter Apathy Will Be Key To Conservative General Election Campaign

Many former Conservative voters chose to stay at home during the Selby and Ainsty by-election (Alamy)

5 min read

Targeting disillusioned voters will be essential if the Conservatives are to stay in government after the next general election, according to the party chairman.

As the Conservative Party conference kicks off in Manchester this weekend, chairman Greg Hands admitted there was an “issue” with apathy among those who switched to vote for the Conservatives in 2019 – a demographic the party needs the support of if it has any hope of winning the next general election, which is due to be called by the end of 2024.

Hands, who is the MP for Chelsea and Fulham, told PoliticsHome that when he spoke to people on the doorstep, he found “no liking for Labour”.

“When people come to the door with issues or problems, I don't find anybody who says the solution to their problems is Keir Starmer and Labour,” he said.

“I think they want the government to be delivering more and that's what we're focused on doing.”

But are they saying they will vote Conservative or are they saying they are not going to vote at all?

“Well that is an issue… and we've seen that in the by-elections,” he replied.

“A lot of people are not feeling very motivated about politics and motivated about voting at the moment.”

In the Selby and Ainsty by-election in July in particular, turnout was down by about 23,000 votes compared with 2019, with local Tory activists partly blaming their loss on disillusioned Conservative voters not turning up to vote.

“There is, in some parts, an apathy out there… we need to win voters’ trust back and that is an active piece of work we're doing at the moment,” Hands admitted.

“Engaging in particular with people who did vote Conservative in 2019, but are currently undecided or might not vote… that I think is going to be a key battleground in this election.

“It's winning back that part of the electorate who have not gone to Labour or the Lib Dems or the SNP, but are currently in either the ‘don't know’ or ‘might not vote’ kind of column. And I think winning that group back is going to be the really decisive part of politics over the next 12 months.”

Greg Hands MP
Greg Hands was promoted to Chairman of the Conservative Party in February after the dismissal of Nadhim Zahawi (Alamy)

This conference will be a decisive one for the Conservatives, as it is likely to be the last one before the next general election as well as a series of by-elections this year and mayoral elections, local elections, and police and crime commissioner elections across the country next year. 

Hands said that he did not think the tone of this conference will primarily be about the general election, but rather about specific issues and what each government department is doing to deliver the prime minister’s key pledges. 

“I want people to come away feeling that the Prime Minister is getting on with delivering for the country with a very strong sense of mission, and that people are enthusiastic about going into next year, enthusiastic about the Conservative Party and the Conservative government and Rishi Sunak,” he said.

“The message I will be getting across is that there's a lot of hard work to be done to win this election. We are behind… but we can do it.”

Hands claimed that the party is “the most united it has been for many years” going into this conference. 

However, a new forecast from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) on Friday showed tax levels in the UK are at their highest ever recorded, and are unlikely to fall any time soon. This will feed into one of the battle lines which will likely rage throughout conference between the government and a group of ‘pro-growth’ Tories who are calling for tax cuts in the upcoming autumn statement.

Former prime minister Liz Truss, the group’s ringleader, is attending a fringe “growth rally” at conference alongside fellow former cabinet ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel and Ranil Jayawardena, where they are expected to urge Sunak to tackle the UK’s lagging economic growth. 

Despite the potential conflict, Hands insisted it was “good” that Truss and Theresa May, another former prime minister, are attending conference.

“We are a broad party and I think it's good that former prime ministers are coming to conference,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to it, I take that as a compliment.

“We have the largest Conservative fringe ever, so there'll be no shortage of things of interest for the wider membership.”

However, he was keen to set out the government position on the calls from rebel Tories.

“Now is not the right time to be setting tax policy. Of course, people will have views and of course, in my 37 years in the Conservative Party there has never not been a debate about levels of taxation and public spending; there's nothing new there,” he said.

“I would agree there's not been enough growth, we need to grow more strongly and more consistently, but it's not been easy coming out of the pandemic, coming out of Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

“But don't expect big fiscal announcements at party conference.”

Hands confirmed he did not have any meetings scheduled with Truss or May during conference, but said he was “likely to bump into them”.

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