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Social policy, not Europe, defines the Conservatives' recent election history
After a period of political dominance under the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, in the subsequent years that followed the Conservative Party has struggled with its direction and identity.
While the 1980s and early 90s saw a period of sustained electoral success, the Conservatives increasingly developed an image that prioritised economic performance over social matters and individualism over collectivism, typified by Thatcher’s now infamous quote that “there was no such thing as society”. By the end of the 20th Century the party’s image and core agenda increasingly evoked negative connotations to many voters. Its formerly confident policy narrative was brought crashing down with the party being decimated in 1997 at the hands of New Labour.
The scale of the defeat in that year appeared to indicate an overwhelming rejection of the individualistic values the Conservative Party had championed during the 1980s and 90s, prompting the need for a new, more ‘social’ approach. This ongoing desire to appeal to a wider range of diverse voters with a socially fused agenda continues to challenge Conservative politicians going into the general election of 2019.
Since 1997, the Conservative Party continues to be on an ongoing political journey. Conservative leadership figures, many of whom have pragmatically become ’modernisers’, have acknowledged that the popular messages of the 1980s have faded, and that their party needs to broaden and refresh its appeal if it were to regain and maintain power into the 21st century. This was epitomised by Theresa May’s public comments in 2002, when as party chairman she candidly remarked in a speech that many voters saw the Conservative Party as “the nasty party”.
Thirteen years in opposition gave the party plenty of opportunities to reflect on this situation. By the time the Conservatives returned to national office in 2010 in coalition under David Cameron, British Conservatism had been reinvigorated with a range of new ideas and policy innovations. Yet hampered by the Liberal Democrats, a fully Conservative policy agenda struggled to wholly materialise.
In the subsequent decade since winning office in 2010, successive Conservative Prime Ministers David Cameron, Theresa May and now Boris Johnson have all grappled with managing the evolution of the party’s social image and identity.
Across its history, the Conservative Party's greatest asset has been the perception of economic competence. On social matters and in managing public services however the Conservatives are still perceived as lacking compassion. In seeking to revive the party’s electoral appeal and hegemony, all three Conservative leaders since 2010 have sought to cultivate a more compassionate and ‘social’ image. In policy terms this led to the formation of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’; Theresa May’s ‘Shared Society’ and Boris Johnson’s repeated claim that he leads a ‘One Nation’ Conservative Party.
Cameron set the ball rolling while in opposition, when in 2009 he launched his proposal for a ‘Big Society’. A somewhat nebulous term which indicated that a future Conservative government would prioritise economic and social policy development in equal measure.
In doing so Cameron acknowledged the interaction between these two differing and distinct dimensions of policy, in a way that Margaret Thatcher’s time in office had seemed to overlook.
As Prime Minister, Cameron spoke with great vigour about social mobility, social liberalism and social justice. In doing so he was rewarded with two general election victories in 2010 and 2015, though neither were wholly decisive, amidst lingering public fears regarding the Conservatives' stance on social policy and the public sector. This was best epitomised by the dichotomy of the Cameron government pro-actively instigating socialised activity at grassroots level, but at the same time cutting public services nationally as part of its austerity programme.
Such actions took the gloss of some of its initially innovative ‘post-bureaucratic’ and decentralised social policy agenda. Likewise, various welfare benefit cuts served to undermine the more optimistic social aspirations that had prevailed when the Conservatives’ returned to power in 2010. Conservative reformers such as Phillip Blond would later claim that the Big Society was ‘strangled at birth’ due to the scale of government spending cutbacks.
Following the EU referendum, Theresa May sought to revive Conservative social policy narrative amidst a chaotic and uncertain Brexit scenario. Like her fellow moderniser Cameron, she wanted to broaden the party’s electoral offer with policies that would appeal across social classes and which would positively impact on people’s everyday social lives. However, unlike Cameron she realised that the central state could not opt out of this process, and that the degree of austerity implemented since 2010 may well have to be slowed down or even reversed.
Concluding that an interventionist state, properly funded, was the best means of achieving what she wanted, May developed socially-themed policies focusing on tackling mental health, racial discrimination, domestic abuse and educational opportunity.
May had one eye on a forthcoming general election, yet was then frustrated by the electorate in 2017, and her bold plans failed to gather momentum. She never got another chance to test the public mood again with Brexit engulfing and ultimately destroying her premiership.
Her successor Boris Johnson has subsequently consolidated and then escalated this social policy agenda that his two predecessors had specifically cultivated. In picking up this social policy baton, Johnson has hit the ground running, adopting populist themes and carrying them forcefully into the burning cauldron of a general election campaign.
Depicting himself as a proud ‘One Nation’ Conservative with a strong social conscience, there has been an explicit ‘social’ undercurrent to Johnson’s 2019 general election campaign.
Austerity has ostensibly been discarded, with this latest variant of ‘Popular Conservatism’ hurling spending pledges in all directions on hospitals, schools, police and social care- key policy areas that impact on the average voters’ everyday life. Building up the community and strengthening society are key underlying themes behind such proposed policies, and polling would indicate they are being positively received by voters.
This awareness and focus on the social angle, in conjunction with offering the party’s traditional solid economic foundations and associated competence, is what the Conservatives are hoping will create the magic formula to secure the ‘holy grail’ of a Conservative majority government for only the second time since 1992.
Ben Williams is a Tutor in Politics and Political Theory at the University of Salford. Ideas in this article are further explored in the article The Big Society: Ten Years On, published in the December edition of the Political Studies Association’s journal Political Insight available here. He tweets at @BenWill1973.