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Moving to the Left is not the way to win back voters north or south

However much seems to change in Western politics, it’s amazing how – in the minds of many – things stay the same. You might have thought that the accumulated trauma to the governing elites of Brexit, a Trump presidency and his possible return to the Oval office in 2024 would have caused a dramatic shift in strategic thinking.

But, if anything, we have returned to the 1950s approach of managing national decline as calmly as we can. The social democratic consensus that the man in Whitehall knows best is back with a vengeance. It has certainly captured the commanding intellectual heights of the Conservative Party.

Conservatives appear to have failed into the predictable trap of seeing their electoral base only in terms of client groups. Although Brexit is now a fact, rather than an opinion, they seem to hope that Leavers will adopt some sort of lifelong brand loyalty to the only major party not to have sought to frustrate our departure from the EU.

Alongside this – indeed, in large part, because of it – a new working class voter base apparently needs to be secured through a mixture of grand state spending efforts and permanent nodding references in the speeches of Cabinet ministers. Nobody knows what “levelling up” really means, but if you repeat the phrase enough times, you might hope to give the impression that southern Tories are at least aware of the existence of parts of the country which lie north of Islington. And perhaps even care a bit about them too.

In the mind of the Conservative government, the proof of this concern is measured by the number – and cost – of training grants and state-run improvement schemes doled out by a benevolent Whitehall machine. There seems little recognition of the possibility that the Red Wall of the 2020s is the equivalent of the Essex of the 1980s. Switching from Labor to Conservative is probably a sign that you want less government interference, not more of it.

The two years leading up to the next election will see the Tories caught on the horns of a familiar dilemma. Liberalizing market reforms may be highly desirable in effect – but are rarely popular in contemplation. If your electoral strategy is guided by a spot price analysis of opinion polls, you will find that socialist measures are the opposite – they may be likely to cause economic damage but will typically be applauded at the time of their introduction.

So, governments committed to market liberalism don’t just need an ideological compass – they also need political courage. Most of the Thatcher reforms were unpopular – or at least highly controversial – as they were rolled out, but swiftly became part of a new widely accepted consensus.

Rediscovering a genuine commitment to lower taxes and less government control would also enable a reconnection with swathes of disillusioned middle class voters in the south of the country. In the local elections, they deserted the Tories in droves. In part, this may be down to fury over Partygate, but the Prime Minister can’t uneat that cake.

He can, however, commit to swiftly unraveling his own ratchet of higher taxes and an ever greater role for government. Urban metropolitan voters who want lower taxes and to be left alone currently have no obvious reason to put their cross in the Conservative box.

Most voters – in both north and south – don’t want to be appeased, bribed, managed or patronized. They want more control over their own lives. Perhaps the recent delay in making buy-one-get-one-free offers on chocolate bars illegal shows the start of the Johnson administration recognizing this. But it’s only a very modest start.

Mark Littlewood is Director General at the Institute of Economic Affairs


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