Empty pledges claiming to be the ‘party of the workers’ will not cover up the problems the Conservative party still faces, writes Conor Pope
Theresa May has made a pitch for Labour territory with a pledge that the Conservatives are ‘once again’ the party of ‘ordinary working people’, in an article for the workers’ daily, properly known as the Financial Times.
The reason for this pronouncement is clear: it is to distance her Tory party from the policies espoused the last time the Tories claimed to be the party of the workers.
‘Power to the people!’ George Osborne declared in his 2015 Tory party conference speech – no, really; he actually did – claiming that the Conservatives had become ‘the party of work, the only true party of labour’.
That Osborne speech was written up in the FT (them again!) as encapsulating an ‘almost palpable shifting of power’ in the country towards a party shaped in his image.
‘Mr Osborne’s speech sounded like a prospectus for power beyond the 2020 election’, the paper noted. That view was not unique, either – prior to that speech, I had written that, despite his personal unpopularity, Osborne was sketching out a path to electoral domination.
But a few months later, the ‘people’ expressed their power in a way that was rather unhelpful for the government. ‘We are the builders’ had been the chancellor’s memorably bold claim in that address – and the ‘builders’ turned out, in Longfellowian fashion, to be architects of their own fate. The country voted for Brexit the following June, and David Cameron and Osborne were on their bikes.
A decade after the Tories’ began, under Cameron, to attempt a modernisation process, the workers had simply not bought into it. Now May seeks to achieve the exact same aim as Osborne and Cameron before her – wooing traditional Labour voters – with an anti-modernisation process.
May’s new pitch for working-class support is by no means radical: it includes a ‘living’ wage – rising at a lower rate than Osborne had previously promised – unpaid time off for carers, and a mandatory ‘workers on boards’ proposal that would require the representative to be neither a worker nor on the board. This is Potemkin village collectivism, merely painting the slums red.
This element of May’s project is unlikely to convince as much as her ‘strong and stable leadership’ mantra. Currently, she is more a master of fortune than of strategy. Her political capital has not been earned, but gifted to her by events beyond her control. She has chosen to cash it in now with a snap election, precisely because she recognises that she cannot rely on banking it.
Meanwhile, the toxicity that infected the party’s brand still exists. See how the Tories barely mention their own name in the election campaign, styling themselves as ‘Theresa May for Britain’ instead. See, also, how Labour currently, stubbornly retains 30 per cent in the polls – despite, well, everything. The Conservatives may be on course for a thumping victory on 8 June, but it is a victory under the May banner, rather than their own.
The Tories may well make serious headway in Labour heartlands in June, and achieve it by taking lifelong Labour supporters with them. The work needed to convince those voters, once again, that Labour truly represents them may be arduous, but it is not worth presuming that they will be lost to the Conservatives forever. The Tories have not put in the work to earn the trust of these voters longterm – many of them will only go blue this time because they feel they have nowhere else to go. The Conservative party will only be the party of the workers if Labour is not.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope
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