Robert Halfon interview: The Conservatives must become a mass movement
“We’re now on the centre ground of British politics; we are now the party of working people.” Robert Halfon’s message could not be clearer. As deputy chairman of the Conservative party, his job is to make sure that message rings out throughout the country.
His office in Parliament is littered with reminders of his mission statement. In bold capitals the words ‘DOES THIS HELP HARLOW?’ scream out from a piece of paper. Another slogan, ‘GET THE BARNACLES OFF THE BOAT’, pays tribute to Lynton Crosby’s mantra of concentrating on a few fundamental issues rather than getting bogged down by smaller policies.
Halfon joined the Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio in the reshuffle after the election and his enthusiasm at being part of the Tory project shines through. “It’s been a huge honour for me and, as I say, genuinely exciting” – his eyes open wider as he leans forward to repeat himself – “genuinely exciting for me to be part of a programme where there is a relentless focus on being the party of the workers.”
The deputy chairman role is a natural fit for Halfon, who has been fighting for so-called ‘blue collar Conservatism’ since he entered Parliament as MP for Harlow in 2010. He first made waves with his successful lobbying of the Chancellor to freeze fuel duty in consecutive budgets through the Coalition years. Trophies of these victories, newspaper cuttings of the announcements, are pinned to the walls and his work was recognised by being made George Osborne’s parliamentary private secretary in 2014. The idea of the ‘white man van’ is not just a political totem to Halfon; constituents who work in vans feature in his arguments.
Nor does Halfon see ‘blue collar Conservatism’ as an innovation or a departure for the party. Instead, he cites policies pursued by Peel, Disraeli, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan and Thatcher as evidence that the Tories have “always been” the party of the workers. Halfon in the past has floated the idea of changing the name of the party, but today he is more concerned about what associations the Conservative party trigger.
“We will always be the Conservative party, but I want also for people to think of us as the Conservative party, but the Conservative party for workers, the Conservative party for working people. And actually, if you look in our history, we always have been the workers’ party.”
July’s Budget, Halfon says, has tightened the Conservative grip on the centre ground. “If you look at the National Living Wage, who would have ever thought that would be a centrepiece of a Conservative Budget?” The higher minimum wage is, according to Halfon, “one of the most important Conservative policies for a generation”, but he points as well to tax cuts, more free childcare, the focus on apprenticeships and the rise in employment under the Tories: “Those things are real, substantive things as a government of working people.”
Much of the political debate in the last parliament concentrated on macro-economic numbers like the deficit. But the message of David Cameron and Osborne shifted to a relentless focus on “hard-working people” by the latter stages of the Coalition. Although he accepts the early days were inevitably seen “through the prism of the economy”, Halfon insists that the last Government was making sure that everything it did read back to the wider public.
“Let’s remember what happened in 2010: we got in and the first thing they saw was a note saying there was no money left and the country was in crisis, I mean, we potentially could have gone the way of Greece. And when we look back now, with the growth in the economy and unemployment down and millions of jobs created, it was a very different world back in 2010 and it was frightening.
“And don’t forget, when you talk about the economy, it isn’t just an abstract thing; the economy means will I be able to pay my mortgage? Are interest rates going to go up? Will I have a job? Will I be able to run my business? That is what the economy means: will I be able to afford food on my table? Will inflation go up? That is what the economy means, so it wasn’t an abstract thing; it actually matters to every single person and the Government was right to say, actually, we have to reform the economy, we have to cut the deficit because only then can we do the things that we want to do and protect our public services and so on.”
To press home the “workers’ party” tag, Halfon is announcing the establishment of a new organisation to link the Conservatives to trade unionists. The recent relationship between the Tories and unions has been, to put it charitably, rocky as the Government puts through a new bill making controversial changes to strike laws and union funding rules. Halfon, a member of Prospect, is a self-professed “proud trade unionist”. He argues that the reality of Tory support among union members belies the caricature – which the Tories have probably done more than anybody else to propagate – of Labour and the unions hand-in-glove.
“I’m proud that we are the party of trade unions. It was a Conservative prime minister, Disraeli, who legislated to allow trade unionism. Even Margaret Thatcher said we should protect the trade unions. But I think that trade unionism should be for the many, not the few. And at the moment, so much of it, you see it through the – going back to prisms – the prisms of a few militant leaders who I believe don’t represent the thousands of ordinary trade union members.”
The new organisation is called 'Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists' and is designed to “provide a voice for Conservative-minded trade unionists and moderate trade unionists”. But Halfon is eager to stress that Conservative-union links date back a long way.
“We are recreating the Conservative trade union workers’ movement. There will be a new website and people will be able to join. There will be a voice for moderate trade unionists who feel they may have sympathy with the Conservatives or even just feel that they’re not being represented by militant trade union leaders.”
At the time of the interview, Jeremy Corbyn has been in post as Leader of the Opposition for just over a week. Halfon believes choosing the left-winger means Labour has “tragically” abandoned the centre ground. His warning about the threat of a Corbyn administration is disciplined and carefully calibrated to hit the whole party, not just its leader. “The Labour party, tragically, which was the party of labour, have been taken over by the hard left and I really believe that the Labour party threaten our national security and our economic security,” he says.
When he expands on the “threat”, the same objective is clear: tying the whole Labour movement to Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell: “[Labour is a threat] because of the associations that the leader has had with terrorist organisations and what he’s said about the British army and what he said about Nato, because when people from the outside are looking in from across the world they see a major political party, Her Majesty’s Opposition, as being soft – soft on terrorism and soft on our security – and that is a very dangerous place to be.
“On economics... John McDonnell said ‘deficit is good for the economy’. I mean, that is a tragic thing to say. They want to print money that they don’t have, which would cost working people through their taxes – many millions of pounds – it would push up interest rates, push up people’s mortgages and I think that is very dangerous for the economic security.”
Does Corbyn’s surge mean that many Labour voters now stand much closer to his brand of Conservatism than to their own leader? “If you are a working person... you will see a Labour party that is a threat to our economy and you will see a Conservative party that has firmly put its tanks right in the centre,” he says.
One of the catalysts for Corbyn’s success was the introduction of a new voting system that allowed registered supporters to cast ballots for their chosen candidate (although he finished first among existing members and union affiliates too). Halfon, under the leadership of party chairman Lord Feldman, is working on a review which he describes as the “biggest consultation exercise... ever done by a political party”.
The survey asks whether or not the Tories should adopt a registered supporters system, but Halfon is clear that the Labour model is not one to follow. “I don’t think the Labour example is a good one,” he replies. “I think members, people who are members who have been members for quite a long time should have voting rights, but... everything will be considered, as I say, as we consider party reform.”
The overall goal of the review is to make the Conservatives a “mass movement” and he wants “reform driven by the grassroots”, not the centre.
“We’ve just sent out a survey to over a million Conservative supporters asking their views on how we become a mass movement; about our mission statement; about how we reach – I’ve called it the Heineken principle – reach parts of the country that we might not be as strong [in], all parts of the country; how we get candidates from all backgrounds – not just more women candidates, which incredibly important, not just more ethnic candidates, which is incredibly important, but also candidates from lower-income backgrounds – to get involved and participate in the party.”
One of the policies being looked at is bursaries to encourage less financially secure candidates to stand, though Halfon stresses there are “a number of different options” available to make that happen. The Conservative logo, too, is in play and Halfon has previously hinted he could support the tree being replaced by a ladder but repeats: “The reforms will be driven by the members and we’re asking the members what they think about everything – from logos to membership – so let’s wait and see what the survey results produce, let’s see what the consultation produces. I know a lot of members like our Union Jack tree.”
The unpredicted and unpredictable groundswell of support enjoyed by Corbyn over the summer does not have Halfon worrying that Labour has the jump on the Tories in terms of a ground operation. “I’m not going to give figures, but our membership has gone up by thousands since the general election,” he reveals.
On the day of the interview, Westminster was abuzz with tales of youthful indiscretions on the part of David Cameron from extracts of Lord Ashcroft’s biography. Is there, then, any concern that reports of Oxford society initiation ceremonies might undermine the ‘blue-collar’ message?
“I was a candidate since 1999 to 2010, I was MP since 2010, not one person’s ever asked me about Oxford University or about Eton or public schools or whatever,” he begins.
“You know what they want? My family, who wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning, go out in their van to work want to know: are the Government going to freeze fuel duty? Are the Government going to make sure that they have a job? Are the Government going to fund the NHS? Are they going to have a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work with a living wage?
“That is what people care about in this country and that is what they will be talking about in the streets, not about schools and universities, believe me.”