You can pore over policies and manifestos as much as you like, yet the decision which candidate to place your cross next to is usually a matter of gut instinct, folklore and superstition!
Party strategists understand this well, and spend considerable time and money trying to create the positive mood music around their party and its leader that might carry the day.
Yet there are a set of basic assumptions about each of the main parties that can be very hard to shake. So it was that Theresa May herself warned the Conservative Conference in 2002, that her colleagues needed to shed their image as ‘the nasty party’.
In fact, voters are traditionally coy about admitting to voting Tory. In 1992 and 2015 in particular, the polls were spectacularly wrong about the outcome of the election, overestimating Labour’s support considerably. Yet the trend is common, so much so that pollsters have to factor in this bias.
So why do so many voters, when left alone with pencil and ballot paper, find themselves indulging a secret urge to vote Conservative?
In large part, it is due to the idea that the Conservatives are the party of social mobility. They might not be very nice, in fact they might be downright cruel at times, but if you are doing alright and want to get ahead in life. If you believe in hard work and being independent and self-sufficient and if you deplore the opposite – the feckless, something for nothing culture of dependency – then there is only one party for you. Just slip past the guy with the clipboard and keep your lip buttoned!
Sadly, this deeply held vision of Conservatism is wrong on two counts:
1) “No man is an island” as the saying goes. The idea that you insulate yourself from the consequences of policies that serve a few and fail the rest is naive at best.
2) You have to be doing very well indeed to be served by such policies. Think of a number, double it, and you’re not even close.
Yet the emotional appeal remains hard to shake. Particular once people start a family. The biological instinct to protect is overwhelming and the old cliches about people becoming more conservative (with a small ‘c’) a they get older could not be more true.
Yet the image the Conservatives would like to project about self reliance and social mobility has never been true, even in the 1980s, when Tories were helping people to buy their own council house and Labour rhetoric was all about class solidarity. As veteran journalist Neal Ascherson once put it, the raison d’etre of the Conservative party is to keep wealth in the hands of the wealthy. Whether it was paternalism, ‘One Nation Conservatism’, economic liberalism and the ‘trickle down effect’, the Big Society, or ‘strong and stable government’ the policies Conservatives pursue invariably concentrate wealth in the hands of very few people. The same very few people who are eager to put money into Conservative party coffers to ensure the trend continues.
In a modern, diverse society, there is no such thing as a typical family. Yet for many people wondering if the Conservatives are the party for them, I’d suggest one way of reaching the answer. Look around you and ask, is it working? Is life getting easier? Or is it getting harder and harder? Harder to find the money to meet your needs and those of your family. Harder to pay for your childcare, harder to get your kids through college. Harder to put food on the table. Harder to get an appointment at the doctor’s. Harder to find a seat on the train. Harder to afford your annual travel card. Harder to get an operation. Harder to find the right school. Harder to pay for uniforms. Harder to find that inner peace that tells you that your best is good enough.
The right will always find scapegoats for why the vision they sell to you never quite seems to materialise, but it’s not immigrants that cut taxes for the highest earners, or sold off the social housing stock, sold off the rail networks, sold off public utilities, want to bring back fox hunting, or want to clear city centres of those who cannot afford ever escalating rents.
Impressions are all well and good. And we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t look at the parties and listen to our gut instincts. Yet when trying to decide where the rhetoric ends and the spin begins, sometimes it pays to scratch the surface.