Post-election: The lay of the land for unions
James Morris, Managing Director, Edelman / 16 January 2020
For the first time since 2010, Britain has a stable government. Its parliamentary majority is enough to withstand all but the biggest rebellions. Barring a major surprise, it doesn’t need to worry about a general election for several years. A new Labour leader may revitalise the opposition, but power over UK-wide policy is held solidly by the Conservatives.
For progressive campaigners, this could appear a bleak picture. But, in the words of Joe Hill – don’t mourn, organise!
The question is what sort of organisation is needed. To answer that, it is important to understand the unique nature of this government and the new political pressures it faces. This is not Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party, nor even David Cameron’s. The votes the party ultimately needs have changed, and its approach to governing has changed too.
The Tories have added older white working class voters to their traditional base of better off families and older people. Their electoral task is to hold these two groups together, which means a much greater focus on the places the new voters live – towns, especially in the Midlands and the North of England – and the values they hold – socially conservative but often economically progressive.
When it comes to governing philosophy, the party is led by a man who is relaxed about state spending on capital projects. The Chancellor – an ex banker – believes that current low interest rates make investment a no-brainer. Day-to-day spending will continue to be squeezed but there is money there for infrastructure.
And the issues they are facing are different too as the labour market changes. Wages, prices, flexibility and equality are all increasingly important.
All this creates a very different landscape for campaigners.
If campaigners want to make a difference they need to focus on influencing local government, devolved government, the Conservative party or things they can do themselves. In the medium term, the only way Labour support for a policy agenda turns into action is if it somehow leads to a shift in the government’s approach.
The good news is that political stability is likely to make the national government more receptive to serious campaigns. The change of party leader, coupled with Labour’s ineffective attack operation, meant the Tories did not have to run on their record in 2019. At the next election, that will not be the case. They will be accountable for what they have done. And so policies that actually help people are in their political interest even if they aren’t immediately popular. Policies that create long term harm are dangerous even if they have short term appeal.
The government’s lack of a clear overriding philosophy is also potentially helpful. Thatcherism was about rolling back the state. New Labour had a clear and fairly consistent view about the limits – as well as value - of what government should do. Away from the issue of Brexit, this government is much more flexible.
All this creates surprisingly fertile ground for well organised campaigns that reflect the interests of families on modest incomes or will make a material difference to issues that matter to communities. The task is to find ways to make sure campaigns connect with these priorities and rise above the noise.
James Morris has advised Presidents, Prime Ministers and national party leaders as well as Chief Executives and senior leaders at companies and NGOs. His clients have included McKinsey, Sky, Draper, EY, Microsoft, Orsted, the TUC and Age UK. He is a former speechwriter to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and advisor at the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. If you work for our supporter unions or as a senior leader and want to hear more from James click here to sign up for our latest Masterclass on the 23rd of January.