The Conservatives can never again win a strong majority while the party is “so tarnished and so misrepresented”, a former minister has said, calling for the party to undergo a radical rebranding.
Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow who lost his job in Theresa May’s post-election reshuffle, said the party’s messaging about its policies as well as its choice of attacks on Labour were fundamentally disconnected from what most voters would understand.
In a pointed criticism of the prime minister and chancellor, who have both talked in recent weeks about the need to remake the case for free markets given the surge in popularity for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, Halfon said: “I am always amazed when I hear of those talking abstractly about the merits of capitalism, totally removed from the lives of most of our fellow countrymen and women.
“We have no message or narrative. No one really understands what Conservatism is all about, except in terms of austerity, economics and Brexit.”
“Going on about Venezuelan socialism may delight Conservatives in the Westminster village but it means little to most ordinary voters,” he said in his speech to the Centre for Policy Studies thinktank. “Every time the Conservatives engage in old-fashioned opposition attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, all we do is advance their cause.”
The MP said he was supportive of May’s premiership and said reforms would be needed whether the party leader was “Theresa May or Mother Teresa, Boris Johnson or Boris Godunov”.
Halfon said the party’s attacks on Labour would continue to fail if they underestimated the party, saying the 650,000 Labour members were “not all Trotskyites but well-meaning individuals inspired by the romantic and noble socialist ideals of helping the underdog”.
“It is time for us Conservatives to develop a romantic and ethical message of our own ... Unless we do so, I believe that we will never get the strong majority that our country needs.”
Halfon said the party could not count on winning over working-class voters because of its Brexit policy. “There are plenty of marginal working-class seats we lost as well. Even if the working-class voters narrative is true, who is to say they will remain Conservative next time if they feel that the party has back-slided over Brexit and the divorce bill too high?”
Support from women was in decline as well as voters in their 30s, many in the public sector hit by the pay cap. Support from the younger generation is “nothing short of a calamity,” he said.
Halfon said welfare reforms such as universal credit had been rolled out without any explanation about whether it would be a potentially good reform. The new system treated people as “digits on a machine, ignoring the hardship through the six-week period it takes to receive the first payment”, he said.
The MP said he believed voters could have been won over in the case of some welfare reform policies such as the bedroom tax, if the government had made a passionate case about overcrowding. By framing it as cut and creating hurdles for people with disabilities to claim their exemption, Halfon said it “allowed the left to claim the moral high ground”.
“I remember as a minister I was not allowed to use the word social justice as the ‘in word’ was ‘social mobility’, which to me always sounded like a Vodafone television advertisement,” he said.
Halfon, the Conservatives’ former deputy chair, has long advocated a rebrand of the party as “the workers’ party”, which he called “a simple way of explaining to everyone what we are about and that we are on their side”. Instead of a tree logo, the party should use a ladder, he said, representing the opportunity he said the Conservatives offered to help people improve their lives.
He said the Conservatives’ should embrace trade unionism and act as a modern trade union, with a workers’ charter showing how the party would protect rights, skills training, fair wages and workers’ welfare.
This article was written by Jessica Elgot Political reporter, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 10th October 2017 09.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010