Conservatism needs a clear message to reach voters’ hearts and minds
It’s time to work out our modern Conservative values and link them to our policies in a way the public can understand.
What is Conservatism for? Is it about Brexit? The economy? Climbing down from the coronavirus Everest? Or “levelling up” – a phrase not everybody quite understands? By contrast, ask anyone what the Labour party stands for, and they will know their core message is about helping the underdog. If a Labour activist knocks on a voter’s door, they may oppose the party’s policies, but they usually believe Labour’s heart is in the right place. After all, who wouldn’t want to help those least well off in society? The Labour slogan “For the many, not the few” is pretty powerful and enduring.
Conservatism needs a heartfelt and emotional message, too. It should express itself as a values-based political movement and not just one that is seen as functional and technocratic.
So often, the government’s (welcome) announcements of new hospitals, more police and increased funding for our schools come over like a Kalashnikov firing off initiatives, with nothing linking it all together; a series of bullets without a target. Our policies must be built around clear values. Executed the right way, this is not too hard to achieve. Our party has always been based around aspiration and the “ladder of opportunity”. The government brings people to the ladder, helps them climb and provides a safety net if they fall.
This applies whether it is a parent searching for the best school for their child, a young person looking for an apprenticeship, or a small business owner who wants lower taxes to invest in capital and their employees. That is what we, the Conservatives, have always been about.
Our policies should be framed in terms of whether they help people climb that ladder
The 2019 election result – and those new voters who trusted us for the first time – also demand something alongside the ladder of opportunity. The Conservatives need to become the true workers’ party; a government that cuts taxes for lower earners, freezes fuel duty, champions skills, boosts small business, builds affordable housing, is tough on crime and protects the NHS.
All our policies should be framed in terms of whether they help people climb that ladder and ensure the security and prosperity of working people. But we also offer an important safety net at the bottom of that ladder. This means social justice must be a core component of our thinking.
For example, in education, we should focus on the low attainment of disadvantaged groups compared to their better-off peers, the struggle that many families of children with special educational needs and disabilities face, and the 1.4 million children in the UK affected by food insecurity.
This net will need to be kept strong and also act as a trampoline to the first rung of the ladder, whatever the person’s background. Every domestic policy that comes out of Whitehall should be assessed against whether it helps make the ladder climbable, or kicks it away.
One of the reasons Conservatives find it so hard to get support from young people is because we are not seen to be values-based. Similarly, up until recently, those on lower incomes were reluctant to vote Conservative. Boris led the party to a remarkable win in 2019 – it is worth noting that the Conservatives have not achieved such a significant majority since 1987.
We will only succeed when people vote Tory not purely on the basis that it is the party for the economy, but because the public sees us as the ethical choice. Young people attracted by the ideals of the green movement and the romanticism of the Left could also be drawn to a party that can offer them a ladder of opportunity.
This year’s conference will, no doubt, bring a host of announcements from the government. It is now time for the prime minister to tell some stories, too. To explain why he is introducing these policies, the moral purpose behind them and how each one fits into the framework of timeless, Conservative values.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.