15 May 2017

Can the Tories win over the workers?


There has recently been some disquiet on the pro-market Right about Theresa May’s apparent leftward march, taken a step further today with the announcement of a raft of workers’ rights. Yet her message, while ideologically impure, is electorally potent – and there is nowhere that provides a better illustration of that fact than Chesterfield.

Chesterfield is at the northern edge of Derbyshire. On paper, this seat is beyond the wildest dreams of CCHQ. Labour won in 2010 with an insurmountable 13,000-vote majority. On a uniform national swing, more than 150 other seats would turn blue first. The seat hasn’t returned a Conservative MP since 1931, thanks in part to the sort of tribalism demonstrated by one Labour voter who tells me: “You could put a red rosette on a monkey and I’d vote for it.”

In the past, this would have been the kind of no-hope seat in which a plucky young Tory candidate would diligently knock on doors in an effort to demonstrate his or her commitment to the cause, and hope for a more winnable fight five years later.

But this is not an ordinary election. Chesterfield had a strong Leave vote: 60 to 40. There are 8,000 UKIP voters who may well be looking for a new home this round (although the party is actually standing here, in contrast to hundreds of other seats). And, of course, Jeremy Corbyn is leading the Labour Party.

CapX has come to Chesterfield, as part of its trip around the country’s most significant constituencies, because it is here that Theresa May’s new Toryism faces its most emblematic test.

As well as being just the sort of place Mayism is designed to appeal to, Chesterfield has a Conservative candidate that epitomises the Prime Minister’s pitch for the centre. As well as being a music teacher in nearby Sheffield, Spencer Pitfield is the Director of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, an organisation he set up in 2015 with Robert Halfon, then the Tories’ deputy chairman.

For Pitfield, as for his party leader, the key to electoral success for the Conservatives is to convince those working long hours in hard jobs that the party understands what life for them is like, and makes decisions with their interests at heart.

“We are absolutely supportive of anything that rewards hard work,” Pitfield told me. “We must say to people that where big business is being unfair to you and not supporting you, that this is a government that is on your side.”

Yet some of what Pitfield says would trigger a hypoallergic reaction from some of his colleagues on the Right. He says trade unions are “fundamentally good things”, part of Burke’s little platoons, even: “As a party and as a country we have focused too much on the industrial action part of what unions do and we have lost sight of the fantastic cooperative support they give their members.”

These arguments are built on the foundations laid by Halfon since he became MP for Harlow in Essex in 2010. David Cameron joked that he was the “most expensive MP in Parliament” because of his successful campaigns on fuel duty, the bingo tax and other issues that he thought put the party on the side of the hard-working but economically precarious. He even argued that the Conservative logo should be changed from a tree to a ladder to represent the party’s commitment to hard work and social mobility.

Compared to other post-industrial parts of the country, Chesterfield – once surrounded by pits – has muddled along. The Royal Mail and Post Office’s administration departments are located in the town, and remain large employers. The profile of the rest of the workforce is an unremarkable mixture of manufacturing, retail, care and clerical work. Some 11.5 per cent of 16-64 year olds here claim out of work benefits; slightly higher than the national figure of 9 per cent. Median weekly wages are £480 – £50 behind the national average. Not the great winners of the modern economy, but not its out-and-out victims either.

Chesterfield’s attachment to Labour, then, is not just economic but cultural. There are safe Tory seats in the south with similar demographics. But the further north you go, the less the Tories are liked.

Or at least, that used to be the case until Brexit – and May.

Inkersall, a former mining village to the east of Chesterfield, is a working-class community with strong links to the trade union movement – many former miners still live here. It is red territory in a red seat. Yet in the two hours I spent with Pitfield knocking on doors, the only Labour voter we encountered was the woman who said she’d vote for a monkey in a red rosette.

More typical was the middle-aged man who said he’d voted Labour all his life but could not bring himself to vote for Corbyn. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been very militant,” he said. “I used to work at the pit. But fair’s fair and he’s not for the working class…. He’s rubbish. He’s garbage, mate.”

Not many voters in Inkersall are that familiar with Pitfield, who was selected just over a week ago. But they do know who Theresa May is. And a lot of them like what they see. “We watched them last night on telly, didn’t we?” the same ex-miner says to his wife, of the PM’s appearance on The One Show. “Her and hubby. Very normal. Very approachable. They were good. And she speaks a lot of truths.”

Another voter, a retired NHS phlebotomist, was surprised to see a politician at her door. “Oooh, someone’s come,” she said. When Pitfield mentioned May, her face lit up. “I think she’s lovely.”

The orthodoxies of British politics dictate that this should be a no-go zone for a Conservative candidate. But Pitfield is warmly received at most doors he knocks on. Among the voters we spoke to, the most numerous group were life-long Labour voters who are turning to the Conservatives. Next came those were those who would be voting for no one, either because they were disgusted by Corbyn but couldn’t bring themselves to vote Conservative or because “they’re all the same”.

Overcoming a majority of 13,000 is almost unheard of in British politics. But even if the incumbent Labour candidate, Toby Perkins, holds on, the gains the Conservatives make in the seat will be a good barometer of how much Theresa May has managed to broaden her party’s appeal. And her announcement today of a series of policies on workers’ rights – including a guarantee of existing workers’ rights when we leave the EU, fresh protections for those in the gig economy, time off for bereaving parents and a statutory right to receive information about “key decisions affecting their company’s future” – is aimed squarely at places like Chesterfield.

Just as the personal tax allowance hike became a fixture of George Osborne Budgets because it was a political win-win, today’s announcements are, electorally speaking, a no-brainer for the Prime Minister – although, in the long term, good politics and good policy are seldom the same thing.

But will she be able to entrench her new support?

When Benjamin Disraeli passed the Employers’ and Working Man’s Act in 1875, levelling the playing field in legal disputes between employer and employee, he boasted that the measure would “root and consolidate” the Conservatives.

The originator of One Nation Conservatism went further, claiming to have “settled the long and vexatious contest between capital and labour” and “gained and retained for the Tories the lasting affection of the working-classes.”

The century and a half that followed proved Disraeli’s self-congratulatory tone to be woefully premature. But has the time finally come when a Conservative Prime Minister can finish the job that Disraeli started?

This article is part of a series of dispatches on the general election. Read more here.

Oliver Wiseman is the Deputy Editor of CapX