What does blue-collar Conservatism look like?

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This was the question facing a panel convened by Bright Blue and the Child Poverty Action Group at a fringe event I attended at the Conservative Party Conference this week. Josephine Tucker reports.

After the 2015 election the Prime Minister promised ‘blue-collar Conservatism’, which he said was about 'giving everyone in our country the chance to get on, with the dignity of a job, the pride of a pay cheque, a home of their own and the security and peace of mind that comes from being able to support a family’.

At a party conference overshadowed by the growing unease by many in the party and in the media on the tax credit cuts planned for next April, the debate was timely. As Alison Garnham, our CEO, emphasised in her opening words, the face of poverty is now mainly one of families in work. 

The Conservative offer on social mobility 

Alison noted the strengthening consensus on a number of policy areas. The government is making significant offers in areas normally seen as outside Conservative territory: an increased minimum wage, a doubling of free childcare hours, and ambitious targets to halve the disability employment gap and close the educational attainment gap for example.

These are serious goals and serious offers. They are also politically skilful; John Harris, commentator for the Guardian, argued that they allow the Government to claim a centrist approach even if the reality is that they don’t come close to offsetting the damage to be done by benefit cuts. The increase in the minimum wage and lifting of the income tax threshold will help some low-income families, as will the childcare offer and the 1% in cut in social rents. However we know from IFS analysis that what the new minimum wage gives to families will be outweighed by what is taken away by the tax credit cuts and the freeze of most in-work benefits. The Resolution Foundation estimates that by 2020 there will be between 3.7 and 3.9 million children in poverty in the UK. As Alison asked the room: is this really what blue-collar families are crying out for?

It was clear from MPs on the panel, as well as many of the audience, however, that there is a deep-seated feeling that social security assistance – at least, beyond a fairly minimal level – is antithetic to encouraging aspiration. Several had grown up under Thatcher and had been profoundly influenced by their own families’ experiences of overcoming hardship through ambition, hard work and scrimping and saving – the Labour ‘welfare’ offer, they said, had felt like telling them to stay in their place, not expect too much from life, and simply take a handout.

The Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb argued that to him, the Conservatives had always been the party that wanted to smash class divisions, while Labour seemed to want to entrench them.

What was striking to me was the seeming lack of recognition that many other parents work hard but still find themselves in poverty. That the parents of the children living in poverty (two thirds of poor children have a parent who works), not in the fringe meeting but out there around the country, were no less committed to doing the best for their children than the parents of the people in the room. 

Will the public buy it?

Aspiration. A ‘hand up’ not a hand-out. Earnings not benefits. Those were the oft-repeated motifs of a Conservative approach to social justice, and few would disagree with them in principle. Most people aspire to a life where they don’t have to rely on benefits, argued Alison, but this doesn’t mean simply cutting benefits will somehow inspire or liberate them to improve their position.

As John Harris pointed out, this kind of rhetoric is powerful, however, and the party had very successfully positioned itself as the party of working people under Thatcher, showing an intuition for how many working-class people felt and capitalising on it with policies such as the Right to Buy. This time around, he said, the government is putting more flesh on the bones of its pitch to working people, with its policies on pay and childcare and the planned 1% reduction in social rents. However, he identified three possible problems which might cause this pitch to fail.

  • Cuts to tax credits, which will hit the incomes of more than 3 million people in working families.
  • The lack of people with a blue collar background at the top of the party, in contrast with the 1980s.
  • The further cuts expected to council budgets. How can we ask people to work harder, when the care services for their elderly parents are cut and they have to leave work at 3pm to look after them?

Where next?

Alison Garnham finished her pitch to the panel with a call for concrete steps to address the growing problem of blue-collar poverty:

  • comprehensive strategies on low pay (including getting the incentives in tax credits and universal credit right, and a real living wage), housing and childcare (including for those who are job hunting, need care before and after school, or work unsocial hours);
  • restoration of the value of children’s benefits (child benefit is expected to lose 28% of its value between 2010 and 2020);
  • a triple lock on child benefit rates (children are more likely to be poor than pensioners);
  • an end to DWP maladministration and delays; and a benefits system which treats people who lose their jobs decently.

And a final word on where blue-collar conservatism might look for ideas. Speakers at the meeting repeatedly said that without economic security, there is no hope of improving life chances for the poor. But we know that tackling child poverty will make our economy stronger – Loughborough University research indicates that child poverty costs the UK £29 billion a year, more than £1,000 per household and more than double the Treasury’s welfare cuts. And despite Cameron’s promised ‘assault on poverty’, that cost is only set to rise.