Theresa May came to power with a clear vision for modern Britain. The Conservatives appeared to have found a leader who recognised and understood the barriers to success for many in British society.
May and, her Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy’s agenda for economic and social reform would build “the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow”. It is a message of empowerment for everyone regardless of their class, age, gender, race or sexuality, and was a fundamental theme in the Conservative manifesto. But it was never included in the election campaign message. One of the many mistakes made. The party needed a positive message of aspiration and opportunity to inspire voters.
Speaking for those who are “just about managing” is also becoming an electoral necessity due to the changing nature of the Conservative party’s support. This year the Conservative party gained its highest level of C2DE (working-class) support since 1979 with an astonishing 12-point increase on its 2015 performance, and Labour leading by only four-points. Conservatives led among people with no qualifications by 17-points, whereas Labour had a 15-point lead with graduates.
There is also an interesting story to tell in the Midlands and the North of England. The Conservatives won five Labour strongholds which voted heavily for Leave; Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, North East Derbyshire, Stoke-on-Trent South, and Walsall North. Copeland was also held by the Conservatives, which they gained in a sensational by-election a few months ago. There were swings to the Conservatives across seats in the North East and the Midlands. To the surprise of many in last month’s local elections, the Conservatives won the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoralties.
British politics is still undergoing a realignment, and class is becoming less of an indicator of how people will vote. May and Timothy saw how the Conservatives are gaining working-class support and have an opportunity to flip seats which have been held by Labour for decades. But many working-class voters who had left Labour for UKIP decided to back Corbyn instead. Breaking through in Labour’s heartlands will require more hard work to be done by the Conservatives.
Today’s Queen’s Speech is rightly focused on the process of implementing Brexit, but it is still disappointing to see how many of May and Timothy’s policies have been discarded, especially the grammar schools policy. This should not stop Conservatives from continuing to explore Mayite ideas and policies. Rob Halfon has already set out his proposals for turning the Conservatives into a modern workers’ party, and his departure from government is disappointing at such a crucial time.
Instead of retreating to an ideological comfort zone, the Conservatives should learn from the best Mayism has to offer. That means saving May’s idea of a great meritocracy which spreads opportunity to working-class voters left behind by globalisation. If the Conservatives continue to be seen as the “party of the rich”, then the party will struggle to win a majority. The centre of gravity is shifting in British politics and the Conservatives must exploit it for maximum advantage. This means Mayism continues to be a vital and desirable idea.