Blue collar Tory: Oxymoron or obvious choice?
It was standing room only in Portcullis House last night as a fifty strong contingent featuring some of the Tory Party’s best and brightest met to discuss an issue that plagues British conservatism: the need to appeal more to the blue collar voter.
The idea of the blue collar voter is itself somewhat nebulous. It was variously described throughout the evening as the ‘working class’, the ‘manual labourer’ and the ‘self-made man’. They are not privately educated, they do not have private healthcare, but they are an aspirational bunch nonetheless. Once placed in the C2 socioeconomic group, blue collar workers may now also include those in the D classification too, says Blue Collar Conservatism founder and event chair Clark Vasey.
However you define them, according to the event’s first speaker John Stevenson, MP for Carlisle, “the blue collar section of our society will without a doubt determine the winner of the next election”. They are prominent in marginal seats, and, according to recent research, identify more with Labour than they do Conservatives.
Stevenson gave his solution to this affliction in no uncertain terms: “jobs, jobs, jobs”. Not only should we be safeguarding apprenticeships, says Stevenson, but also the Tory Party should be actively going on the offensive against Labour for failing to represent working people and for leaving the country with high levels of debt.
Personality, social background and diversity, he added, are all integral to garnering support from blue collar workers. Perceptions wise, it seems that the Eton-biased Conservative benches remain unrelatable to the working man, costing the Tories votes and seats as a consequence.
Cue MP for Wirral West and, according to Vasey, “rising star of the Conservative Party,” Esther McVey to ram home this point. To draw the less affluent into the ranks of her party, she said, “it takes the right messenger, as well as the right message”. She holds the floor with a Northern accent that betrays her emotional attachment to the Blue Collar Conservatism project. Unlike many Tories, she feels right at home in blue collar communities, having grown up in one, and draws on her own experience of what attracted the working class in her area to conservatism in the first place.
Sounding an optimistic note, she is adamant that the fiscal responsibility preached by Westminster Conservatives will resonate with manual labourers, as will the Conservatives’ commitment to low taxes.
Hard work and earned social mobility are the cornerstones of philosophies shared by the working poor and by the Conservatives, she said. She refrained from using the word “striver”, but this aspirational catch-all was definitely evoked as she closed by referring to a belief that she feels is shared by both grassroots conservatives and seasoned Tory politicos, that: “You can’t take any more out than you put in”.
It was only a matter of time before Thatcher’s legacy would surface at the event, given the pride of the conservatism on display. This was the main contribution to the debate of the night’s third speaker, television producer and director Martin Durkin. His luminous yellow braces matched the tone of his input: jovial and bombastic. Sporadic shouts of “hear, hear” broke out around the room as he argued that Thatcherism drew in a new breed of blue collar voters to the party, a philosophy modern conservatives need to return to if they are to reengage with the working class. “In terms of winning the support of the working class, Thatcher led the way” he said. “UKIP has had no trouble attracting working class voters because it’s Thatcherite.”
The star performer of the evening, however, was undoubtedly Dr Liam Fox, former defence secretary. His council house roots also positioned him well to speak on why exactly the conservative mission attracts the working class, orating with evident passion until he was, quite literally, a little red in the face.
He reinforced Durkin’s point about Thatcher’s apparent appeal to blue collar workers, adding that this happened in spite of the slightly snobbish image she projected. Nothing turns a working class voter off like the pretence of toffishness in a politician, but, according to Fox, the key difference between Thatcher and modern conservatives is the clarity of the message they deliver. “When we are bored to death of hearing it, some voters will hear it for the first time”.
Amongst the lively floor discussion that followed, featuring Conservative councillors from across London and even a district councillor who had come all the way from Lincolnshire, recently appointed No 10 adviser John Hayes responded to Fox’s concerns. “The trouble with Conservatives,” he lamented, “is that they think they’re too sophisticated to repeat things simply... We need to escape from the notion that this is somehow vulgar”.
There were also some incisive comments made by members of youth political group Conservative Future. I caught up with the group’s newly appointed National Chairman Oliver Cooper after the event to gauge his response. “I wanted to see if there was unity within the party on how we can speak with a single voice and a single mind to win over these working class voters,” he told me. “Historically we’ve always relied on them. We now need to show that the Thatcherite brand of Conservatism actually appeals more to the working class.”
It’s certainly a bold argument to suggest that what the C2 voter really wants is a Thatcherite throwback party. If last night’s panel agreed on one thing, however, it was that this should be the Conservative consensus. Conspicuously absent from the discussion was Cameron’s position as party leader.
In 2015, it is debatable whether or not the Conservative Party can really hit home with the blue collar demographic whilst an old Etonian is at the helm. It’s especially so when the alienating rhetoric of ‘strivers v skivers’ is rampant within the Conservative ranks.
Only one woman sat amongst the top table of 11 yesterday evening as discussions on rebranding the Tory Party took place in front of an almost exclusively white audience in a Westminster meeting room. That lack of diversity may be the biggest obstacle of all in the Blue Collar Conservatism group’s mission to win back the working poor for the Tories.