Conservatives must convince people it is the disadvantaged in society they care about most

Dan Watkins 11.58am

With our history as a trading nation, Britain has long favoured open markets and economic liberalism. Even in the presently difficult economic times, a majority of voters still believe that capitalism is the best way forward.

But despite the Conservative party being the country’s foremost supporters of capitalism, over the past two decades it has consistently polled in the region of 30 to 40 per cent. So the party’s Achilles heel is not its economics, but its social policy - or at least the public’s perception of it.

Rightly or wrongly, the Conservative party is perceived as the ‘party of the rich’. Lower income groups are discouraged from becoming supporters, fearing the party is not interested in them. Furthermore, many better-off voters seek to allay their social consciences by shunning the Tories. The two diverse groups represent millions of voters but can both be addressed by focusing on the disadvantaged - and if done successfully could push the party above the critical 40 per cent level of support.

In fact, it is only the Conservative party that can truly transform opportunities for the disadvantaged - the people who most rely on the public services that are in urgent need of reform. The Labour party’s strong ties to the unions and the large swathes of leftist supporters within the Liberal Democrat party, prevent either from taking the radical steps needed to improve social mobility.

The Tories are unencumbered by those vested interests and care just as much about helping all members of society as any other politician. But crucially, it is the belief in policies that fit the grain of human nature that give the Tories a genuine chance of success. The use of the ‘carrot and stick’, or positive and negative incentive, is what needs shouting about.

For instance, with welfare we have long offered benefits to people when they fall on hard times. For some recipients the ‘carrot’ works and they soon return to work. But for many others, the money is taken with no serious intent of finding further employment. They will only respond to the ‘stick’ - such as the threat of enforced community work or reduced benefits.

Consider another area - education - where again we are putting sensible incentives into play. We provide positive incentives to children from poorer families by improving their quality of education received via free schools, academies and the pupil premium. Yet those pupils who do not respond, and who cause disruption, will now face newly-liberated heads who possess a greater range of sanctions for pupils and parents. Teachers will also face positive incentives in the form of differential pay, syllabus freedoms and greater powers in the running of schools - but also the threat of dismissal if they consistently fail to perform.

This can be applied to all public sector workers. The Conservatives sorely need to improve their support among this group at a time when necessary public spending cuts threaten to offer them only the ‘stick’, not the ‘carrot’ (such as decentralisation or mutualisation). Examples such as the Civil Service Pension mutualisation should act as blueprints for other state institutions.

Of course, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove have already begun implementing such policies in welfare and education. But we need to spell out to people time and time again how these measures shall directly help families on lower incomes. Likewise for reforms to the NHS, local government and social services. The Government’s programme is not all about deficit reduction in the slightest.

The next three years offer many opportunities to focus relentlessly on the disadvantaged in British society and demonstrate to voters that it is these people the Conservative party cares the most about.