Last night, Edelman hosted a speech by Tory rising star Johnny Mercer setting out how the Conservative Party needs to adapt to new political realities in order to reach beyond its core vote. The event was organised by Onward, a campaigning think-tank which aims to develop new thinking on the centre-right for the next generation. In his speech and lively subsequent Q&A, Johnny made the following arguments:
The Conservative Party needs to appeal more to ordinary people, it is currently dominated by professionals and career politicians. He had never voted until he decided to run for Parliament, driven by a sense of injustice about the lack of dedicated care for fellow veterans.
The party also has a perception problem at a time when voters place a high premium on ethos, values and authenticity, as demonstrated by the popularity of figures as diverse as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump. He chose to contest his local seat – rather than pursuing a safer seat – and set out to knock on every door before the 2015 vote. Voters appreciated this personalised approach and he was able to win what had previously consistently been a Labour-held seat, and then increase his majority in 2017.
Brexit was a huge wake-up call to the establishment with the Leave majority being made up of people who felt their interests and values had been neglected – in his own constituency of Plymouth Moor View, 70% of voters backed Leave. The Government needs to heed this message while at the same time bearing in mind that for most voters it is not a defining issue per se, and that we need to reach the “promised land” beyond Brexit.
In terms of policies, many Conservative policies around welfare reform are correct and popular in principle, but the way that Universal Credit has been rolled out has caused people to lose faith. Conservatives need to realise that many people rely on public services and when these fail it really affects their lives.
The party should therefore unashamedly declare a war on poverty which means embracing the minimum wage and ensuring that the NHS, policing and education are properly funded. Mental health is another are that needs urgent attention – despite some progress the average life expectancy for someone with mental health problems is 19 years lower than for someone without them.
In terms of winning over younger voters specifically, the party needs to drop gimmicky policies like the ‘Nando’s card’ and address issues that materially affect them, including unaffordable house prices and poor and over-priced public transport.
The party needs to occupy the centre ground, an opportunity spotted by the Independent Group, but they are limited by being defined primarily by what they are against, namely Brexit, and any party also needs to have a positive offering.
He concluded that he was personally “unashamedly optimistic” about the future of the country and that politics today resembles a horse that has bolted. While the current generation of leading politicians are still in the stable arguing about what has happened, the challenge facing the next generation of Conservatives is how to catch up with and tame this horse, i.e. “to take over and govern differently”.
Responding to the speech, Edelman’s Senior Director Craig Woodhouse agreed that the world is crying out for authenticity, but that political renewal is often difficult to achieve while in office. He added that in addition to needing the right policies and tone, there is also a need for political parties to consider how they communicate and that politicians still have much to learn about harnessing new and existing social media platforms as well as devices such as smart speakers. He warned that at a time of increasing polarisation, the centre ground can end up being a lonely place.
The Financial Times’ Laura Hughes also agreed that smooth, centrist politicians such as Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron were currently out of fashion but that in Scotland, Ruth Davidson had managed to combine broadly centrist positions with the kind of personal authenticity that Johnny had called for. She noted that the challenge facing his vision of a rebooted ‘One Nation’ conservatism was that many party members were of a small state Thatcherite persuasion and that the centre-left is currently more of a fertile space for innovative political thinking.