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The Conservatives need to start talking about the future
The Conservative Party today have a communication problem. The message that the Party is seeking to project is simply not resonating in a way that would be electorally beneficial. No matter how hard Party leaders, MPs, and activists try the message is being disregarded. Why?
At present the message is focused on the £44bn being invested in the housing market; growth in manufacturing; increases in individual disposable outcomes; investment in the NHS, and of course the ongoing negotiations surrounding UK departure from the European Union. These are messages based on the record of the Conservatives in government. On paper it is a record of success.
But contrast this with the messages the Labour Party are using. They appear to have identified three core messages – these are promises to save the NHS, to tackle rogue landlords, and broader social inequalities. This is tied together through the rhetoric of ‘hope’, for example the line ‘hope is no longer for the few’.
The immediate difference between the two rhetorical styles is clear. The Labour Party is looking forward to a point where they can enact their policies, whilst the Conservative Party is looking backwards to draw on their record. For the Conservatives this is problematic because the message becomes one of ‘yesterday’; it appears to have run out of ideas because they are talking about what has passed. Labour are offering a new vision of a post-Conservative society. They have their gaze fixed on the next election and are ignoring their record in opposition. All the chaos that engulfed Labour since 2015 has been erased from their mind-set. Put simply, the vote of no confidence; the leadership challenge; the Shadow Cabinet resignations never happened. For Corbyn’s Labour, history began on the 9th June 2017. As a consequence the voters disengage with the Conservative message because it is quite literally backwards looking, whilst Labour’s looks to an imagined future.
There is also the problem of character. Labour frames each of its messages against the Conservatives. The character that Labour use is of the uncaring Conservative who simply wants to cut taxes, workers’ rights, and privatise the NHS. This caricature works well with activists, however Labour’s aim is to convince the floating voter that it is real. In concert with their forward looking rhetorical style this approach pays dividends when it comes to communicating with the electorate.
So what is to be done? To combat this rhetorical approach the Conservative Party also needs to look to the future. The voters are not interested in a positive record because they are asking each of the parties what they intended to do next. As such the Conservatives need to have a plan not just for what they’ve done but what can they offer the electorate in 2022?
To steal Labour’s rhetorical clothes the Conservatives need to offer a positive vision which speaks to their values. The voters tend to care about core issues, which today are the economy (jobs); housing (affordable homes); immigration (making sure it is fair); and a sense that we as a country are moving forward, not back. Labour offers a version of this. For the economy they promise nationalisation; for housing they promise to defend renters against unfair landlords; for immigration they talk of a ‘Peoples Brexit’, and to take the country forward they offer abstract hope. As mentioned above, the Conservatives need to follow suit but in a way that reflects the essential tenets of conservatism.
For the Conservatives an economy thrives within a free market (de-regulated) environment; affordable home ownership can be achieved by building more houses (such as on the green belt around London); an immigration policy which compliments the needs of the country; and a future in which prosperity can then be assured. At present the Conservatives are talking about their record on manufacturing. As important as that is, it won’t convince a floating voter to support the Party. Rather a more cohesive vision is needed if the Conservatives are to take on Labour and present their own message of hope for a better future. If not, then the voters will keep listening to Labour’s promises of a brighter tomorrow whilst the Conservatives are left talking about yesterday, which would be fatal in a country looking for optimism in an increasingly unfamiliar political world.
Andrew S Crines is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool. He tweets @AndrewCrines.
Image: Jiyeon Park