The Conservatives’ brand is being taken to the cleaners. According to Lord Ashcroft’s focus groups, the words and phrases most often associated with the Conservative party right now are 'untrustworthy', 'for themselves', 'out of touch', and 'for the few'. The Conservatives are at risk of becoming the Nasty Party again. Given all the years spent detoxifying the party’s brand, how has it come to this?
The reputation of every governing party suffers with time, but the Conservatives seem to have a particular knack for being seen as heartless the longer they are in office. At a time when households are struggling, the Conservatives find themselves in a position where despite spending £37 billon to help, they are still seen as out of touch. It is not what Conservatives do, but how they do it which is the problem.
Some Conservatives point to the public finances for their failure to do more of the poorest. However, the Chancellor already built into this previous Budget significant ‘fiscal headroom’ to deal with a potential crisis. Public sector net debt is due to fall from to 83 per cent in 2026-27.
Others would say that the best way to lift people out of poverty is work, but Brits have been seeking work in record numbers. Providing support to families during the pandemic did not undermine people’s work ethic. Why would it do so during this cost-of-living crisis?
There is a long Conservative tradition of supporting measures to alleviate working poverty. It was the Tories that opposed the workhouses in the 19th century and passed legislation to improving working conditions. During the inter-war years, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain expanded unemployment support and abolished the workhouses. Libertarians dismiss this crudely as ‘paternalism’. The truth is that conservatives have always been motivated by a sense of duty to others.
It was not conservativism that drove an aversion to welfare but two forces from the left. One electoral, the other philosophical. Electorally the emergence of the Labour party as a major political force created a big problem after the war. The Conservatives who had once been seen as the counter to the ‘heartless’ Liberals now found themselves outflanked by a more generous Labour party.
More importantly, Conservatives allowed themselves to become beholden to Marxist ideas. In fighting communism overseas, thinkers on the right began to accept one of the core principles of Marxism, namely that human nature is influenced through the structure of the economy and material conditions.
Conservatives have traditionally dismissed ideologies which believe that human nature is as malleable. However, the existence of communism across a third of the world’s population sowed the seeds of doubt. What if human nature could be changed through the structure of the economy? Would people be prepared to give up on democracy? On the family? Looking closer to home, conservatives began to question the welfare state that had emerged after the war. The relative electoral success of Labour in the mid-1960s and early 1970s created a paranoia that Labour was ‘making’ Labour voters through generous welfare policies.
This Marxism has deeply influenced the Conservative’s policy and political strategy. If the Soviets were manufacturing communists abroad and Labour was warping the people at home, the Conservatives could do the same. One of the clearest examples of this philosophy in action has been the Right to Buy. This policy was not simply about giving people security over their home, it was about changing the character of people. It was for this reason that money from the Right to Buy would not go into building more social housing, despite commitments to do so, but because that would merely recreate the conditions for socialism.
The Tories’ Marxism is why it cannot move forward and announces variations on this policy every few years. Boris Johnson echoed Thatcher in his recent speech on housing, where he claimed that Right to Buy policies led people to switch 'identities and psychology'. This is an argument Marx would understand.
Ideologically, Conservatives have come to believe that every pound of welfare spending or social housing is an investment in socialism. Voters don’t see it that way. Ironically, it is the party’s Marxism that has led it to becoming the perennial Nasty Party.
Brexit has created an opportunity for the party to rediscover its conservatism. In 2019, for the first time in their history, Conservatives outpolled Labour amongst people on low incomes. Analysis on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified policies to end the benefit freeze and increase the National Living Wage as reasons for this shift. Turning its back on the austerity politics was also crucial.
The 2017 and 2019 elections also demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that welfare policies 'create' certain types of voters. In 2019, the Conservatives recorded a bigger swing amongst social renters than they did from homeowners or private renters, according to Ipsos Mori. New analysis from the Max Planck Institute has found little link between home ownership and becoming conservative in the UK.
Conservatives need to rediscover their confidence in values of the British people. Just as Disraeli took the gamble of expanding the franchise, trusting that conservative values could appeal to working people, so the Conservatives need to break out of their present ideological prison that creates ridiculous contortions such as increasing pensions but not support for working people to help with cost of living. The conservative way to win elections is to demonstrate a commitment to the national interest and to appeal to people’s sense of patriotism and community. The Prime Minister’s love of Britain is well documented. For the party’s sake, he must be the man who can help his party to trust the character of the British people again. The alternative is to continue to embrace a Marxist perspective that will continue to alienate the public.