Nick Faith is Director of WPI Strategy.
The next general election in the UK will be held no later than Thursday 23 January 2025. In other words, the Conservative Party probably has six to 12 months to get its act together. So where should it start?
While there has understandably been a lot of focus on the Prime Minister, whoever leads the party into the next election will need to have a coherent and positive vision for the future of the country.
Simply rolling out the 2015 election “coalition of chaos” warning that voting for the Lib Dems will lead to a Starmer/Davey/Sturgeon government won’t cut it with many voters across the country who simply don’t fear the Labour leader in the same way they did Jeremy Corbyn.
A positive and confident vision must be supported by a consistent set of policies. There are signs that Number 10 understands this.
In a recent article for this very website, Andrew Griffith MP, the Director of Policy in Downing Street, suggested that any ideas emanating from the Government must foster economic growth and improve public services, reduce costs for hard pressed families, and be consistent with a conservative philosophy that people and businesses are better placed to spend their own money more wisely than technocrats in Whitehall.
There is also the small matter of whether voters understand and want to buy what the Conservatives are selling. Griffith covered this off with an additional fourth test for any new policy. It must be “clear and simple enough that MP colleagues can successfully retail it on the doorsteps of busy families across the UK,” he stated.
So far, so good. But the major fly in the ointment is that no such test appears to have been applied to existing policies. As a result, the current Conservative offering is something of a mixed bag that is being weighed down by too many deadweight policies.
A recent poll by WPI Strategy underlines this, shedding light on which policies are cutting through and which are either turning voters off or simply failing to resonate.
The poll, carried out by JL Partners, took ten policies which the Conservatives have committed to, and which they aim to deliver between now and the next election – disregarding policies they have already delivered, or policies that have been floated but not confirmed, as well as policies that cannot be put into effect until after the next election. Respondents were asked to say whether they supported each policy, and then to put the policies they supported in order of priority.
The polling shows that the party does have some broadly popular policies that can capture the public’s imagination, as well as policies with the ability to appeal to its base and create dividing lines with Labour that can work in an election campaign. For example, we found strong support for the two most popular policies: upgrading and building new hospitals and delivering full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home.
When it comes to business taxes, there has been a great deal of discussion about reversing the decision to raise corporation tax next April. While this u-turn may be sensible, cutting business rates to boost high streets would be a much more visible and popular policy – as our polling reveals – and one which would likely lead to much bigger bang for buck in terms of the local jobs and investment created, not to mention boosting social value in communities across the country.
Other policies may be less popular with the general public at large, but at least they resonate with those people who voted Conservative in 2019.
The plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda is a perfect example. We can see that while the policy has quite high levels of opposition as well as support overall, it is seen as a high priority for those who do support it and the second highest priority for those 2019 voters. The same can be applied to scrapping EU regulations, with 2019 voters in particular wanting the Government to prioritise making the most of a Brexit dividend.
Gimmicks, such as reviving imperial measurements (which according to some business leaders will actually increase their costs) need to be binned before they make it out of the No 10 press office.
When it comes to other policies, the party needs to purchase an industrial-sized shredder.
Channel 4 privatisation fits into this category. As many Conservative MPs have publicly pointed out, not only does this appear to be a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist, but a change of ownership could fundamentally damage a thriving sector of the economy: our independent production companies.
The public also appear to have no idea why the Government is hell-bent on privatising Channel 4. It had the least support of any of the policies we tested. And for the tiny minority of respondents who did think it a good idea, only one in 20 thought it should be a priority.
Unsurprising really, given it has absolutely nothing to do with easing the cost of living crisis or growing the economy.
In theory, the four tests set out by the Downing Street policy director should help the Conservative Party to perfect its policy offer as the election approaches. But in practice it still needs to be laser-focused on delivering policies that the public, and especially those who voted Conservative last time around, both support and think should be prioritised
To put it another way, and to quote election campaign supremo Lynton Crosby, the party needs to “get the barnacles off the boat”.
That will firstly require taking a look at what is currently in the mix and assessing whether these policies do indeed align with Downing Street’s stated priorities. It will also mean developing a clear and consistent narrative on both short to medium term challenges, such as how to manage rising inflation, while also setting out a long term vision on how the Conservatives view the future growth prospects of the UK.
Get this right, and the polls suggest Sir Keir Starmer is there for the beating. Get it wrong and the voices for change will only grow in number.
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