The Sunday Telegraph
These voters are uniquely attuned to traditional Conservative messages on low taxes, a stable economy… and values like quiet, decent patriotism
For 20 years, self-styled modernising Conservatives have tried to align the party with affluent, urban voters with metropolitan values. Modernisers, invariably depressed over Brexit, were uniformly horrified by the Tories’ wildly successful pivot to the working class and lower middle class of provincial England. To them, the party’s by-election loss in Chesham and Amersham is proof this was all a big mistake. The party leadership should ignore the critics and hold their nerve.
The Conservatives did not pivot into an electoral niche but into the mainstream. Most Conservative activists have little experience of working class and lower middle class life; they might only pass through working-class towns on the train. But this is a group of people who make up something like half the electorate – more so in vast swathes of the country outside the South East.
Furthermore, these voters ought to be uniquely attuned to traditional Conservative messages on low taxes, reformed and better public services, a stable economy – and values like family, hard work, fairness and quiet, decent patriotism. The Conservatives have arguably merely sharpened their appeal to those who should naturally consider them. Why has this pivot therefore caused such disquiet?
Politics is about perceptions – and shaping perceptions requires painting with bold colours. Consequently, the party laid on the concept of change with a trowel: a confrontation with the courts over prorogation to show they cared about Brexit; transferring new jobs out of London and introducing new towns funds to show they cared about “levelling up”. Painting in such bold colours to shore up provincial support paid off in the 2019 general election and the 2021 local elections, but it had a cost; it all implied less interest in southern heartlands.
HS2 and planning regulations seemed to have played decisive roles in Chesham and Amersham; if local issues are going to flare up, they will do so in a by-election. However, there is no point denying the provincial pivot may have played at least some role. The question is: is this price worth it?
Answering this requires answering two other questions: are provincial gains for the long-term? And can the party hold on to at least most of the affluent South? The answer to the first is “probably”; to the second, “definitely”.
While it is true to say most new working-class voters have effectively put the Conservatives on trial, the party is passing early big tests: Brexit delivered; an Australian points system for immigration; more money for the NHS; more police. (And, as we have seen, they have the same values.) Meanwhile, Labour remains stuck on another planet: activists worry that flying the Union flag looks divisive, while covering their social media platforms with Palestinian flags. It is hard to see provincial voters flocking to Keir Starmer soon.
What then of southern voters? It seems reasonable to assume the most culturally metropolitan urban voters are lost; partly because they will not forget Brexit any time soon, but mainly because they now define primarily as values voters – whose values are increasingly aligned with the cultural Left and therefore with the Lib Dems and increasingly the Greens.
But most affluent southern voters are not values voters, having much in common with the Conservatives’ new provincial supporters. Between Chesham and Chesterfield, their problems are only different in scale: they still worry about the stability of the economy, their tax levels and take-home pay, their mortgages, the safety of their streets, the quality of their local hospital and GP surgery.
As I have written on these pages before, such has been its provincial success, the Conservatives can look to craft a more self-consciously national message and de-stress the significance of the pivot; they can put away the trowel. This national campaign – and governing strategy – should be focused on helping hard-working people whose living standards depend entirely on their weekly or monthly pay packet and on decent state-run services – above all, the NHS.
Dialling down the pivot also means dropping the language of “levelling up” down a hole. To be clear: not the strategy, the language. It has never worked in focus groups; provincial voters doubt “levelling up” could ever happen; affluent southern voters think they will be fleeced to pay for revolution. With a more national message for workers should come a national message for all those towns and cities which have seen better days.
Chesham and Amersham is a wake-up call. But it is a call to refine their existing strategy, not to junk it completely.