international analysis and commentary

The UK and blue collar conservatism


After scoring a largely unexpected victory in the last election, David Cameron pushed forward his “blue collar conservatism” agenda by appointing a strikingly diverse and working class-friendly cabinet. In July, the government announced a budget for the “working people” that introduces a national “living wage” aimed at expanding the appeal of the Tories to a broader voter base. 

The cabinet, which was nominated in May, includes among others, the son of a Pakistani bus driver, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, and Employment Minister Priti Patel, who comes from a Ugandan-Asian family. Other appointments that reflected Cameron’s effort to increase the government’s commitment to diversity, in this case in respect to gender balance, were Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd and Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise Anna Soubry. Also of notable significance was the sharp drop in the number of privately educated cabinet members. 
George Osborne, who kept his post as Chancellor of the Exchequer, is expected to play a crucial role in practically shaping some of the key policies of the Tories’ blue collar platform, with the first round of announcements issued in the context of the government’s  2015 budget. 

The Chancellor introduced what he called a national “living wage” of £7.20 an hour for workers aged 25 and over starting next April, with the rate slated to go to up to £9 an hour by 2020. However, the budget also contained significant cuts to welfare spending, including a freeze on working-age benefits and the elimination of housing benefits for people under 21 years. Osborne said the budget was designed to “keep moving us from a low-wage, high-tax, high-welfare economy to the higher-wage, lower-tax, lower-welfare country we intend to create. This is the new settlement.” 

The effort to have a more diverse cabinet was designed to push back the image of an Eton-educated party distant from the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, but also reflected the commitment of the newly appointed government to carry out aspirational economic and social policies aimed at attracting large cross-class majorities in the coming elections and at competing with Labour on its turf. 
This ambition was reflected in Cameron’s speech at the cabinet’s first meeting: “The pundits might call it ‘blue-collar conservatism,’ others being on the side of hardworking taxpayers. I call it being the real party for working people: giving everyone in our country the chance to get on, with the dignity of a job, the pride of a paycheck, a home of their own and the security and peace of mind that comes from being able to support a family.” 

During the campaign, the government pledged to increase the number of apprenticeships as well as the amount of free childcare available to working parents. Before the elections, the Tories had also promised in their manifesto to extend the existing “right-to-buy” program to more public housing tenants and to bring up the personal income tax allowance to 12,500 pounds, with the goal of meeting the aspirations of lower-income voters pushed out of an increasingly unaffordable housing market and squeezed by stagnant salaries. 

But while a serious threat to Labour, the Tories’ campaign promise of a “good life to all” is up against significant challenges. First, in order to keep its promise of balancing the budget, the government will be tasked with rolling out £12 billion in welfare cuts that might alienate at least some of the very same voters it wants to attract in the long term. Similarly controversial is the government’s plan to pass stricter anti-strike laws. Finally, the referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU, which is likely to take place in 2016, will probably require what will probably be a divided Conservative party to adapt its message to the demands of working class families who may feel disengaged over the future of Europe. 

According to data quoted by the Financial Times, fewer working-class voters at the bottom of the income ladder voted for the Tories at the latest election than five years ago – a striking reminder that the government’s attempt to rebrand its image won’t be an easy task. While the Tories have worked hard to deliver an appealing message to the blue collar electorate, Labour seems to have diluted its political narrative, pushing an agenda that many saw filled with contradictions. 

For instance, some have accused Labour of having embraced excessively pro-market stances. In a symptomatic comment, a reader said in a letter to The Guardian after the vote: “Labour, it seems – and thanks mainly to Tony Blair – are more concerned with becoming part of the entrenched privilege than trying to change anything. But the privileged already have a party so there is no space for them and they’re redundant”. 

On the other hand, Labour was also widely seen as hostile to business. For instance, just a few hours after the devastating election results, entrepreneur and reality-tv star Alan Sugar (from the UK edition of “the Apprentice”) quit the Labour Party due to its negative stance on business. Lord Sugar, who had been a member of the party for 18 years, blamed his party for its “shift to left”. 

During the campaign Miliband was very critical of big fortunes and even of policies encouraging profit with the result that several of his economic proposals – including new harsher tax rules for non-domiciled residents and the introduction of caps to private profit in the national health care system – were seen as attempts to punish the private sector, limiting its opportunities to grow. 

Labour’s positioning toward business has also been at the center of its ongoing leadership contest, with two Blairite contenders – Chuka Umunna, who has by now withdrawn from the race, and Liz Kendall – calling for the party to be more pro-business. 

All the parties that have been in power during the recession have been punished by voters. Labour lost for other reasons as well. The electorate didn’t forgive its distant, mixed message on social and economic issues and, in Scotland, its stance against the strongly anti-austerity party SNP and its support for the united Britain. But Miliband’s critics call for a shift towards a Harold Wilson-style platform – a doctrinarian and detached approach in favor of a renewed industrial policy plan – equally worried and distanced people, as Simon Walker, a former advisor to both parties and now Director General of the Institute of Directors, noted. The way out of Labour’s controversial narrative and programmatic conundrum doesn’t seem to be around the corner.