Are the Conservatives the natural party of the working-class? There was a time, not so long ago, when this question was scarcely credible. Only professional contrarians, and perhaps satirists, would have bothered giving it attention. Yet the only certainty is change, and in an era of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn the question feels not just plausible but necessary. On a number of key issues it seems clear that the Labour Party, which under its present leadership surely owes more to Marxism than Methodism, no longer represents working-class views and values. This being the case, has the Conservative Party managed to fill the void?
I discuss this question with Spencer Pitfield, Director of the recently formed Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists (CTU). The CTU launched in 2015, with the joint aims of promoting conservatism within the trade union movement and the value of trade unions to the Conservative Party. Given the sometimes difficult history between the two, this sounds like a PR challenge worthy of United Airlines. Yet Spencer is confident that, not only do the Conservatives have strong working-class appeal, they’ve become the party which most accurately represents working-class interests. And he wants this to become one of the main themes, perhaps even the main theme, of the Conservative Party.
Spencer paints a picture in which, on a range of issues, the working-class have been badly let down by Labour and a politicised section of the trade union leadership. This seems convincing. If the Labour Party was founded by an alliance of left-wing intellectuals and working-class organisations, the intellectuals are now firmly in control. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 represented their final, possibly definitive, triumph. According to internal party data leaked in January 2016 the rise in Labour membership under Corbyn can disproportionately be attributed to the middle-classes. ‘High-status city dwellers’ make up 11.2% of Labour’s membership, but just 4% of the general population. Corbyn has, according to Spencer, moved Labour ‘far away from…the moderate working-class voter’. Indeed he goes further, arguing that Corbyn has ‘absolutely offended the working-class more than he’s offended anybody else’.
We get into specifics. On law and order Spencer, who also serves as a Sheffield Magistrate, notes that ‘nobody suffers more from crime than people who live in areas which are not affluent’. Concerning immigration he claims that the working-class ‘feel that Labour has let them down badly’. Essentially the argument is that on these issues, and others, Labour has come to embody ideologically left-wing positions which are some way from those of ordinary working people. These positions might resonate with that section of the middle-class intelligentsia which disproportionately runs Labour, but less so to those living in areas with higher crime rates or who feel that immigration is suppressing their pay packets.
Above all Spencer sees the Conservatives, unlike Labour, as the party of aspiration. Or, via his preferred metaphor, as the party ‘of the ladder’. He takes this analogy seriously, suggesting that the Party adopts a depiction of a ladder as its official logo. Similarly he is supportive of the suggestion by Robert Halfon MP, the CTU’s President and an Education Minister, to rebrand the Tories as ‘The Workers Party’. Any rebranding effort in this direction is likely to be aided by two new factors, Brexit and Theresa May’s premiership. It’s clear from the available analysis that the less-well off were more supportive of Brexit, often by a large margin. When I was campaigning during the referendum I was told, quite accurately, that the best way to predict if someone is likely to back ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ was to look at the length of their drive. This means that a lot of traditionally Labour areas voted ‘Leave’, providing an opportunity for the now clearly pro-Brexit Conservative Party.
Secondly Spencer is clear that Theresa May’s accession as Prime Minister has made the CTU’s work easier, noting that ‘her values are very much our values’. Partly, this is about perception. It was clearly problematic when, as was the case under Cameron, a significant proportion of the Government came not just from one university but from a handful of schools. Perhaps this change is best symbolised by May’s support for a diverse schooling system, including new grammar schools. There are surely few sights in the world more nauseating than those left-wing politicians who were educated at private selective schools, or who have sent their children to such institutions, seeking to deny the right to a selective education to the children of the less well-off.
Regarding trade unions specifically Spencer is clear that he is a fan, and believes the wider Conservative Party should be as well. Yet he also believes the British union system is in need of reform. He explains that a section of its leadership, the ‘dinosaurs’ like Unite’s Len McCluskey, have become both overly politicised and unrepresentative of their members. Ideally Spencer would prefer to see unions not affiliated to any political party, focused on campaigning for their members’ rights. The current opt-out situation on political funding, which means a large number of Conservative/Liberal/UKIP voting trade union members are also funding Labour, is surely not defensible. But beyond that Spencer argued that it’s harder for a politically affiliated union to protect its member’s interests. If they become politically bias, they cease to be disinterested parties in any disputes.
The Labour Party was formed in 1900, to provide a Parliamentary voice for working people. There’s increasing evidence that, on a significant number of policy areas, it’s no longer fulfilling this mandate. This gives the Conservatives the opportunity to become the true workers party. Whether they will succeed is unclear, but the very fact that I’m discussing this without a smirk on my face shows how far the party has come. Opportunities like this don’t come round often in politics, and it would be a real shame to miss it.