Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
I think readers of ConservativeHome will know my columns well enough by now that when I want the Conservative Government to be better, I am not afraid to say it. But it is also important to dance a jig or two, when they get it right.
Yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister was a blue-collar speech in tooth and claw. When he said that he would focus on the people’s priorities, he really meant it.
For communities like mine in Harlow, and no doubt those in and around the blue wall, there will be a sigh of relief that there is no return to austerity, that the NHS is King, that schools and colleges will be better funded and housing and infrastructure will be built across our land.
Above all, we now have an extraordinary and exciting offering to our young people – an opportunity guarantee, comprising a choice between an apprenticeship or a work placement. This is a real policy that could make a difference to winning back younger voters as well.
The reason why this Boris Johnson speech was so important was not just the significant policy content, but because it set the direction of travel for the Conservative administration. After a few rocky weeks seemingly being bogged down in the Coronavirus mire, the Prime Minister is back on the front foot, setting out a Tory Workers’ agenda, that millions of lower income workers not only relate to, but can also get behind.
They have been reminded of why they voted for us again. Of course, saying that we are going to ‘build, build, build’ is easier than the building itself, but now the course/trajectory/path has been set, it is up to the rest of the Government to start constructing our New Jerusalem.
Patrick O’Flynn was one of the early media forefathers (and proponents) of blue-collar conservatism, way back in the days when Notting Hill was regarded as the preferred venue of the Tory éminence grise – a little unlike Dudley, where Johnson was yesterday. So, he is someone worth reading up on or listening to.
However, his recent article for The Spectator entitled, ‘Starmer is stuffed, filled me with absolute horror, because his line of argument, if accepted, would instill a large dollop of complacency in every Conservative.
In O’Flynn’s view, Starmer’s history and background, his inability to develop blue-collar policy, the cultural wars and the Tories’ reputation for economic competency, means everything will be alright on the night.
If we, as Conservatives, believe the above to be true, that way disaster lies; not only will we lose our majority at worst, or have a hung parliament at best, but our historic red wall gains in the North will crumble away.
Let me set out a few reasons why:
First, Keir Starmer is radically de-Corbynising the Labour Party – almost by stealth and under the cover of coronavirus. Almost all the way through the Shadow frontbench, from PPS’ to the Shadow Cabinet, moderates are being promoted. If you look at the calibre of Labour MPs – like Shadow Business Minister, Lucy Powell, or Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas Symonds – you know that the Labour leader is being serious when he wants to present an alternative Government. Meanwhile, the NEC and Labour General Secretary are passing into the hands of social democrats, rather than the far left.
Second, whilst Starmer may not have had his Clause IV with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, it is certainly a Clause 0.4. In one fell swoop, Starmer has shown the British public that he will not tolerate the anti-semitism that has so infected his party over the past few years – and given a pretty sure signal that he wants to enter the doors of 10 Downing Street.
The idea that the public will care about Starmer’s past record as Director of Public Prosecutions is as fanciful as voters being negatively influenced by Johnson going to Eton, or his early and controversial newspaper columns.
Third, never underestimate the power of Labour. Their message of helping the underdog and the poor is enduring, still popular and extremely potent. They are not going to sit back and let the Tories rule for eternity. The psephological evidence shows that public opinion is leaning closer and closer towards Starmer for Prime Minister.
The latest Opinium poll shows that Starmer is preferred to lead the country by 37 per cent of voters, compared with 35 per cent who back Johnson. While the Conservatives remain four points ahead of their opposition on 43 per cent to Labour’s 39 per cent, the gap has closed from over 20 per cent in February and early March, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Scaling the Tory wall is far from insurmountable.
Fourth, on policy: Just because Starmer is a ‘metropolitan’ does not mean that his policies will be ‘metropolitan’, too. His Policy Chief is Claire Ainsley, who wrote an important book, The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.
If her views, alongside those of a more communitarian nature as proposed by thoughtful Labour thinkers like John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham (with whom Johnson’s former Political Secretary, my colleague Danny Kruger, is collaborating on big society policy development), or Maurice Glasman, then they could actually have an exciting message to the public, winning minds as well as hearts.
If Tories are busy painting flags on planes, or building Royal Yachts, or shooting ourselves in the foot as we are wont to do on a regular basis – whether it be on free school meals or the NHS surcharge – and Labour are focusing on the cost of living, skills and genuinely affordable housing, I think it is pretty clear voters are going to be looking at the Labour offering, once again.
Having said that, if we come up with more of the blue-collar narrative, I set out in the first part of this article, alongside significant tax cuts for the lower paid, then perhaps O’Flynn could be on to something.
I just wish he wouldn’t say it, nor any other right-thinking individual. Conservatives have to take the next few years as if we have a majority of one, and remember that the political left want the Tories gone, and will stop at nothing to kick them out of Downing Street.