James Frayne: Theresa May's grand plan to realign British politics
Under May's leadership, the Tories have shifted their focus towards the lower middle classes. It is just the start of an ambitious two-stage strategy.
With the inevitable focus on Brexit and now a possible Scottish referendum, the scale of Theresa May’s political ambition has not been properly appreciated. But May is clearly trying to achieve a complete realignment within British politics – one that will make the Tories entirely ascendant.
She has a strategy with two parts. The first is the complete dominance of the mainstream of British politics. The second addresses the historic, structural Conservative weaknesses. This strategy is only credible because of the rapid decline of the Labour Party and the complete irrelevance of the Lib Dems. The left have exited mainstream politics.
Her shift to the mainstream comes via a radical change in emphasis towards helping the mass of C1/C2 voters in provincial England. I have written about this extensively in the past so won’t dwell on it here but, as I outlined in my 2015 Policy Exchange paper, these “just about managing” voters are the ones that decide elections. They make up more than half of the electorate in most constituencies.
What seems like an obvious shift is revolutionary for the Tories because the Party has largely ignored the lower middle class in recent times – preferring to talk about how to help the most disadvantaged. As noble as this might have been, it sent the message to ordinary middle income families that they were too well off (and perhaps too provincial) to worry about. This was a mistake.
This shift is the single most important one that May could have engineered. It puts the Tories bang in the middle of political debate for ordinary people – and makes them even more attractive in the vast numbers of seats that the Tories are currently already viable in. In other words, it will help push them over the edge in many seats.
But for all its importance, this shift was a relatively straightforward one. Much more difficult to achieve are those shifts that May is engineering that deal with structural weakness. This is ultimately about making the party attractive in seats that they are currently not viable in. These seats are not required in principle to win a majority, but they are required if your goal is a major political realignment.
These structural weaknesses are the following: the hatred many people in former industrial heartlands of Northern England have for the Tories; the absence of the Tories from the centres of many of Britain’s major towns and cities; and their failure to attract large numbers of votes from ethnic minorities. May is trying to address each of these.
The Tories have taken incredibly bold moves to appeal to Northern Labour loyalists. The announcement of an industrial strategy designed to revamp the economies in the regions and her warnings to big business that she will not tolerate unacceptable capitalism is designed with these Northern voters in mind. Her thinking is clearly this: Labour have done little to help these areas; UKIP have fractured these voters’ Labour-voting habits; now we have the opportunity to move in.
Theresa May’s downplaying of the Northern Powerhouse concept was not a slap in the face to the North. Rather, it was a sensible way to begin to address the weakness of the Tories in urban politics. There was always a danger in the Tories’ obsessing about the Northern Powerhouse – because it obviously sent the message to other towns and cities in provincial England and elsewhere that they did not matter.
The Government has only just begun to lay out its strategy for our urban areas. The Government’s commitment to HS2 and towards further improvements in railways is designed with city votes in mind. We should expect to see them continue with the devolution agenda. They will likely also look to improve vocational education at FE Colleges and to expand options for adult retraining. While it will have niche appeal at the outset, we should also expect the Government to continue the last Government’s attempts to expand the number of Mayors’ Offices of Data Analytics – currently being developed in London, for example. These will help city politicians to improve their policymaking.
The Tories final weakness regards ethnic minorities. It would do Theresa May and her team a disservice to say they are driven primarily by politics here. At the Home Office, May had a track record of addressing concerns about the treatment of minorities. That said, it would be naïve to think that politics plays no role in such matters – politicians are always hungry for votes.
The Government has already announced its “race audit” into how ethnic minorities are treated by the public sector. It is easy to imagine that this will be expanded into the private sector – looking at things like how recruitment works, for example. Yes, the Tories made a big mistake with Amber Rudd’s announcement about foreign worker lists. But this will not put the Tories off; they clearly aim to press on.
Will the Tories succeed? If Theresa May can execute an orderly exit from the EU and come up with a policy on immigration that has the support of the public, she is surely in with a chance given the leftward lurch of the Labour Party. After all, if you live in England and you are not on the hard left, it is hard to understand why you would vote Labour.