I have a theory that the values of the majority of the British public are not radically different from those espoused by members of the Conservative Party. The thing that stops a lot of people actually voting for the Conservatives is what I have called “Toryphobia”.
As a former sufferer myself from Toryphobia, I believe I can speak with some authority on it. I started off with a set of broadly liberal moral foundations, but because my parents had moderately left-wing views (they transferred their support from Labour to the SDP on its formation), I just had no real idea what Conservative philosophy was all about. I just simply didn’t like Margaret Thatcher at a personal level, and based on that, and my concern for the underdog, I swore to myself on my 18th Birthday that I’d never vote Conservative.
It took twenty years for me to summon the courage to break that resolution. It was only when the Conservatives were out of office, at my fifth General Election, after my worldview had changed fundamentally due to co-founding a small business, and consequently as an economy measure ceasing to take the Guardian, that I finally felt able to vote Conservative. The point is that quite of lot people have invested themselves emotionally in being anti-Tory, and it takes quite a considerable effort to turn that around.
Working class people historically have tended to vote Labour for tribal reasons, and have continued doing so out of inertia, even while the Labour Party itself has been captured by the Middle Class, and its values have drifted further and further away from its traditional support base. At the elections of 2010 and 2015, however, it seems clear that many were no longer prepared to continue to support Labour, but because they were so emotionally invested in Toryphobia, they hadn’t switched parties, but had simply not voted at all. Or they had voted for UKIP.
People really are quite “groupish” (as explained by Professor Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind) — on the whole, they don’t tend evaluate the policies of the parties dispassionately, but make decisions emotionally, and therefore they tend to vote along the same lines as other people they think of as “us”.
The problem with the Tories is that to many people they give the impression of being “them”. Theresa May is an interesting example of this otherness. In the early days of her premiership, she was very popular because she was initially perceived to be different to Cameron and Osborne, and managed to connect at some level with the majority, who were thus prepared to give the the benefit of the doubt as to whether she could be one of “us”. The election campaign exposed a different side to her, which was really quite “other”, albeit not in the same way as “Tory Toffs”, losing her the goodwill of a number of people.
The Labour Party has been able to exploit the us/them divide brilliantly with their use of social media, appealing very much to the younger generation. The fact that Labour’s socialist policies would be disastrous for younger voters is discounted because they have been encouraged to feel like the Labour Party belongs to their own in-group. And the really clever part is that Toryphobia is fostered as a core in-group value.
As some are becoming all too painfully aware, Conservatives have their work cut out to combat Toryphobia. We need to find a way of reconnecting to alienated members of the public, to show them that the Conservative Party is on their side. This can only be done with honesty, openness and authenticity, of course.
Ideally, what they could do with is a leader who challenges people’s preconceptions of what a Conservative is. After all, Ruth Davidson has had a great deal of success in overcoming anti-Tory prejudice in Scotland. This is something the Conservative Party will need to bear in mind the next time there is a contest for the leadership, whether that’s sooner or later. In the meantime, the Conservatives need a social media campaign showcasing the genuine diversity of the Conservative Party, demonstrating that the party is the on the side of ordinary members of the public.
In the longer term, Conservatives should make every effort to find ways to connect with younger people. To that end, it would be good for young blood and fresh faces in the party to be promoted. Better still would be to move away from dreary May-ist Toryism, which is unlikely to enthuse those with a recent University education. We need stress our commitment to inter-generational fairness, that the whole point of austerity is to try to limit the burdens having to be shouldered by younger generations. To make it clearer that we are on their side, we should be looking for ways to enable young people to achieve a decent career without having to take on massive debts.