As Theresa May launches a Conservative manifesto designed to target ‘mainstream Britain’, Kieran O’Connell looks at whether the policies included will succeed in capturing the all-important middle ground.
Political commentators have spent much of the past 10 months trying to define ‘Mayism’. While the Prime Minister denies the existence of such an ideology (preferring to talk about ‘solid Conservativism’) there is no denying that this manifesto has defined a new, modern strand of Conservativism. A whole section of the document is devoted to determining the principles of the party under May: the Conservatives do not support ‘untrammeled free markets’ or ‘selfish individualism’. They believe in the good that governments can do and that change is a positive force for the nation, when achieved by a strong leader with clear principles. Ultimately, Theresa May believes that “our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals”. This is a particularly telling statement, likely shaped by her often-referenced vicarage upbringing and foreshadowed in her first speech as Prime Minister made on the steps of Downing Street last July.
Talking to the “ordinary working people across this land”, the Prime Minister made clear her wish for the Conservative Party to broaden its appeal even further. Perhaps responding to the trade union protestors present outside the Yorkshire launch venue, she spoke of the need for Britain to have a clear plan for the future which would depend on the ability to “put tribal politics behind us”.
Can today’s manifesto achieve this? It will do nothing to deter Corbynites but it’s certainly a start. The document identifies five key challenges which can be read as a surprising blend of May’s traditionalism and David Cameron’s focus the concept of Britain in a ‘global race’. The result is a pitch to voters to create both ‘the world’s great meritocracy’ and a ‘united nation in a changing world’.
Whether these slogans are meaningful enough to shore up support for the party ahead of 8 June remains to be seen. Indeed the latest polls (showing Labour up 8 points on previous polls, shrinking the Conservative lead to 15 points) offer an indication that the current leaden campaign may not be inspiring everyone. That said, such a result would be a dream for the Conservatives as it would deliver a three figure majority, see Labour losing moderate MPs and strengthen the resolve of Jeremy Corbyn to remain leader.
Theresa May has positioned her manifesto as a leveler between all sections of society. Middle class pensioners are to lose benefits under new proposals for the funding of social care, the pension triple lock is to be removed, while the commitment to increase the tax-free personal allowance to £12,500 remains. There are proposals to increase the National Living Wage to 60% of median earnings by 2020 and to increase real terms spending on the NHS and schools. The modern Conservative distaste for market intervention has been cast to one side in favour of the energy price cap – just one of the measures she has loaned from Miliband’s 2015 Labour manifesto.
The party might hope that – by confronting historic perceptions that the Conservatives are not the party of the NHS, or the low paid, or the state-schooled – that they park their tanks not just on Labour’s lawn, but edge them into their front room. But perhaps the party should be mindful of the pitfalls of grabbing the centre ground whilst looking to bleed UKIP of every last vote. Theresa May might feel confident in what this manifesto has to offer centrists, but there are also several deterrents: a commitment to reviewing the Hunting Act, retaining the immigration cap, scant reference to carbon emission reduction or LGBT rights and the continued prioritisation of deficit reduction. The Labour accusation that the manifesto contains a ‘Dementia Tax’ may also be particularly damaging for a party that is still struggling to overcome the reputational harm caused by the ‘Bedroom Tax’.
So why should the public trust the Conservatives over Labour? The focus in the past few days has been economic competence, but in reality it comes down to leadership. Or, in Theresa May’s summation: Strong and Stable. Today she spoke of the necessity of good leadership during Brexit:
“If we fail, the consequences for Britain and for the economic security of ordinary working people will be dire. If we succeed, the opportunities ahead of us are great”.
She went on to stress that her manifesto offers a vision for Britain “not just for the next five years, but for the years and decades beyond”. She has been prepared to ditch populism in favour of leadership. Contrast this with Labour’s manifesto, which contains populist polices but lacks populist narrative and a Liberal Democrat manifesto which gambled on a second EU referendum.
May is trying to build a vision for the UK of the future, and the role for voters in it – and she may just have succeeded in pitching it as far and as wide as possible to secure her strong and stable parliamentary majority.