Blogs Coffee House

Confronting the Tories’ original sin: they are still seen as the party of the rich.

30 June 2014

1:13 PM

30 June 2014

1:13 PM

Dominic Cummings is at it again. Michael Gove’s former advisor has become a reliably entertaining guide to the Whitehall labyrinth. It is plain, too, that Cummings likes to think of himself as a Teller Of Hard Truths Many Of Which Our Masters Prefer Not To Contemplate Too Deeply If At All. This is fun.

His latest post purports to be about swing voters, immigration and the EU but it is really about the biggest problem afflicting the Conservative party: who is it for? And who is it seen to be for? As Cummings puts it:

The fundamental problem the Conservative Party has had since 1997 at least is that it is seen as ‘the party of the rich, they don’t care about public services’. This is supported by all serious market research. Another problem that all parties have is that their promises are not believed. This includes Conservative promises on immigration since 1997 which have not been credible. Now, people have four years experience of a Conservative prime minister and they can see that he has not stopped hundreds of thousands entering the country despite promising to do so.

Bang. On. Everything else is just chaff, really. In that respect, the war between the Traditionalists and the Modernisers rather missed the point. Trads said Look, the public agree with us on many things so we just need to keep banging on about the things we think that are actually popular. Fine, said the Mods, but no-one is going to listen to you or give you the benefit of the doubt unless we prove this isn’t the Tory party voters grew to hate.

And actually both sides had a point. Trads are right that Tory views on europe and immigration and so on are actually quite popular. But Mods were right to observe that policies became less, not more, popular if they were associated with the Tories. The party hadn’t earned its hearing.

Even so, not enough was done to combat the biggest single problem the party faces which, as Cummings says, is that it is seen as the party for rich people. That, more than anything else, explains its problems outside the south-east of England. Sorry, its continuing problems.

It is telling that Cummings reports, based on focus group findings, that no-one believes this government has protected  – ring-fenced in Whitehallese – spending on the NHS. It is true but it runs against everything voters are conditioned to think about the Tory party. It’s a reminder, I think, that the Mods didn’t go far enough.


But can you blame voters? This government has made – for understandable reasons – a virtue of its astringent approach to public finances. No wonder, then, the public assumes the NHS budget has been cut too and are disinclined to believe that it hasn’t.

There’s another problem, however. Voters are suspicious of policies perceived to be pursued for ideological reasons. They dislike politics based on theory. And there remains, alas, a sense in which the public thinks the Conservatives can’t really be trusted with the NHS. A sense, too, alas, in which the Free Schools movement (all power to it!) is too easily perceived as a case of putting ideology before pragmatism. This is rather unfair, not least since liberating schools is a deeply pragmatic enterprise but there you have it.

Compounding it all is the credibility problem. And here Cameron has been most entirely captured by his bloody party. If voters are disinclined to believe the promises you make on immigration it would be sensible to cease making stupid promises that you cannot honour. Something similar might be said of promises about renegotiating Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Don’t expect to be believed when the line you’re trying to hold has been chosen with an eye on party management, not the needs or limits of actual policy.

So what’s to be done? You can keep quiet about some of these issues and there’s something to be said for that approach or you can try and level with the electorate trusting that they will reward you for your perceived honesty. There’s not much we can do about X or Y because that’s the price of A and B which are things that we value more highly than we dislike X or Y. It’s unfortunate but that’s the way the world works. You can’t actually get everything you want and a party that persuades you otherwise is treating you for a fool.

That’s a risky approach, of course, because voters – the bastards – might reply that, actually, they elect a government to solve problems not to lecture them on trade-offs.

Equally, there is a problem with telling the truth: voters might think this has to be a ruse. Just another part of the game. What are they trying to hide from us with this “truth” stuff of which they speak?

So it is difficult to sell a message in an age of scepticism. Promises have a very short half-life. Difficult too, to sell a message without being seen to be selling it and since the perception of it being sold undermines the legitimacy or value of the message it all becomes terribly problematic. This is one of the problems with retail or consumer politics.

Still, even within those limitations, the worst thing you can do is confirm existing negative stereotypes. Reinforcing the reasons why people hate you is just daft. Scrapping the 50% tax rate made perfect sense in theory; in practice it has been a disaster for the Tories. Because it tells voters We’re the party for the rich and we will always look after our chums before we look after you. Bye bye modernisation.

Is there a bright side for the Tories? Only this: they’re running against a Labour leader who seems determined to reinforce negative stereotypes about the Labour party. You know nothing, Ed Miliband.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Damaris Tighe

    The Tories have no principles. The only thing they wish to conserve is their position as a ruling party. They offer socialism lite.

  • Man in a Shed

    The answer is simple, ditch the rich tustafarian political class and vote UKIP, who are droing just fine in the rest of the country outside the south east.

  • CraigStrachan

    Two blogs from Alex Massie today? Must be no matches on…

  • Kitty MLB

    I’d like to point out that our biggest issue with immigration are with those from Middle
    eastern countries that Labour allowed in, and as far as the EU is concerned Labour gave
    away our rights to determine how many people can live here, due to free movement.
    The only way to stop that and to have control is to leave the EU.
    And unlike Labour and the Lib Dems, who have disgracefully said No to a referendum.
    Conservatives will be having a referendum in 2017.

  • Mynydd

    Mr Cameron’s biggest problem is that he will have been in power for 5 years come the 2015 general election. ‘it’s all the last Labour governments fault’ will not work for the simple reason Mr Cameron will have to justify his record, ‘but what have you done about it in the last 5 years’ will be the call. Then there will be the linkage of known failures to other unrelated policies, for example, you told us that you would reduce net migration to tens of thousands, yet it has gone up, so why should we believe you on this ————— commitment. (Put in your own words)

    • Kitty MLB

      Utter disgrace. Your bunch of miscreants took 13 years to destroy the very foundations of this country. You filled it with those from the third world, destroyed our education system, wrecked the NHS, created a benefits society,
      wrecked our great Northern industrial cities for cheap goods from China and
      turned you core voters into a ‘ underclass’ and the rich became richer and the poor became poorer.
      And no apology, no ideas, no remorse, just an smug note saying there is no money left and Ed Balls of all people as shadow chancellor.
      I hope UKIP destroy Labour and become the party of the working class..
      remember those.. the back bone of England whilst treacherous New-Labour
      supped expensive wine with celebs and Murdoch.

    • Paddy

      It certainly is the last government’s fault…….. and if you think we will stop blaming you when Cameron wins the election think again.

      If you can still blame Thatcher I think we will be good for blaming Labour for at least another 30 years.

  • david trant

    When you say the voters like the Tory attitude to Europe would you like to explain what it is. UKIP’s attitude is simple (agree or not) a vote for us is a vote to come out of Europe. A vote for the Tories is a vote to get a choice to come out, after long and pointless renegotiation in which a few scraps off Merkel’s table will be presented by the Tory Press as a banquet, and a victorious PM will then give Europe the stamp of his approval and the same Tory press will urge everyone to vote yes to staying in. Of the two which one is the simpler to accept for Eurosceptics?

    As for immigration: immigration helps the rich, (recently in London’s Kings Road watching the parade of nannies, pushing their charges everyone was an Eastern European girl, (and very nice too) can just see the likes of Dave and Co. cutting off the source of supply.

  • willshome

    “no-one believes this government has protected – ring-fenced in
    Whitehallese – spending on the NHS. It is true but it runs against
    everything voters are conditioned to think about the Tory party”

    NHS funding is indeed ring-fenced ie frozen. But at the same time the rise in VAT has added 14% to its VAT bills, billions have been wasted on the top-down reorganisation that David Cameron personally promised before the General Election would not happen and billions more have been wasted by forcing NHS services to be put out to tender (which benefits no one but the multi-nationals who put money into the Tory Party). Virgin, Circle, Serco, G4S – yes, even G4S – are laughing all the way to the bank.

    We have half the scanners per 1,000 of population that Greece has, for God’s sake, but Jeremy Hunt thinks the answer to our poor cancer performance (the one indicator where our NHS is not a top performer) is pillorying GPs who can’t spot cancer during a 10-minute appointment. Many of our dwindling supply of GPs are going broke anyway, forcing them to retire or into the arms of multi-national companies waiting to siphon off profits to foreign shareholders.

    Meanwhile patients are not being told that their NHS is the most efficient and cheapest health system in the G7 but that it is inefficient and unsustainable so start thinking about paying to see your GP, get that cataract operation, or hip replacement, or knee surgery.

    Michael Portillo explained on TV that the Tories didn’t say what they’d do to the NHS before the last General Election because they didn’t think they’d get elected if they did. Well, we’ve seen what the Tories are doing to the NHS now, and there’s another General Election on its way…

    • goatmince

      “Half the scanners that Greece has.”
      A point well made as the shocking truth will only excite those who wish to divert from that fact by suggesting further privatisation was the answer.

    • Daidragon

      Superb and informative. The NHS is going to be a huge issue at the GE.

    • ButcombeMan


      ATHLT1040 – Introduction: NHS healthcare

      The provision of healthcare by the NHS is a statutory function: it is
      thus non-business rather than exempt. NHS hospitals are funded
      centrally by Government for their provision of healthcare as well as for
      the VAT they incur. They are registered for VAT and as well as
      recovering input tax in relation to those taxable supplies they make in
      the course of business, they are permitted under a special provision
      under section 41 of the VAT Act 1994 to recover the tax incurred on
      certain services in relation to their non-business statutory provision.

      In other words it looks as though they claim back the VAT they pay out.

    • Dougie

      Can you please specify which NHS activities are now being carried out by Virgin, Circle, Serco and G4S? Thank you.