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Renewed Tories playing Labour at its own game

Tory backbenchers want David Cameron to steal Labour's thunder with policies to cut the cost of living - and win over trade unionists.

Asked on the first day of Labour’s conference when he planned to bring back socialism, Ed Miliband protested: “That’s what we’re doing, sir.”

And some people, both critics and supporters, think he’s been as good as his word, as he went on to announce a series of policies – including freezing fuel bills – which have been described as left-wing.

Other proposals to come out of Labour’s conference in Brighton included forcing developers to build homes on empty land they own or risk losing it, and reversing Government plans to cut corporation tax, although this will be accompanied by a cut in business rates for small firms.

There will also be a possible increase in the minimum wage under Labour, and the party continues to promote the “living wage” – a voluntary minimum wage which is higher than the statutory minimum.

But something is happening in the Conservative Party, too. A group of MPs and candidates are urging the party leadership to adopt – and make more noise about – a set of policies which sound very similar to some of Labour’s proposals, even if the Tory methods of achieving them are not the same.

An internal party pressure group called Renewal launched a pledge card with several key policies at the Tory conference in Manchester. These are modelled on the pledge cards pioneered by Labour back in 1997 and used in subsequent elections, but with a key difference – the card sets out policies the MPs want Conservative Party to propose, not ones it has actually adopted.

MPs involved in Renewal include Nadhim Zahawi (Con Stratford-upon-Avon) and Paul Uppal (Con Wolverhampton South West). Other supporters include Rachel Maclean, the Conservative candidate for Birmingham Northfield.

This is one of the target seats identified in the Conservative Party’s “40-40” election strategy, which will pour resources into 40 seats they hope to gain and 40 marginals they need to hold.

Renewal’s aim is to push the party into adopting policies which will appeal to working class voters and middle class voters on limited incomes – exactly the people that the Tories need to win over if they hope to gain a seat like Northfield.

The proposals on the pledge card are:

* Building a million new homes over the course of a Parliament (very similar to the policy of building 200,000 homes a year announced by Labour in Brighton).

* Helping the low paid by increasing the minimum wage while reforming employers’ taxes and lifting more people out of tax. The idea here is that if you cut taxes paid by employers it would then be possible to raise the minimum wage without putting jobs at risk, because employers could afford to pay it.

* Boosting job creation across the whole country by giving cities real power, helping start-ups and creating apprenticeships.

* Cutting fuel duty and taking measures to help people with the cost of living, including a “cost of living test” for all legislation. Chancellor George Osborne announced a freeze in fuel duty at the conference.

* Taking action to stand up for the consumer against rip off companies, including the creation of a Secretary of State for Consumer Protection. This is clearly an attempt to claim the same territory Ed Miliband has staked out with his promise of a fuel price freeze.

* Constructive engagement with trade union members. Offering free Conservative membership to trade union members. Giving trade union members the right to donate their levy to the Conservatives.

The final pledge raises an issue of particular concern to some of Renewal’s supporters, particularly Harlow MP Robert Halfon who is urging his party to abandon its traditional hostility to trade unions.

A third of union members actually vote Conservative and many others are not wedded to any party. Instead of taking the union link with the Labour Party for granted, Conservatives should embrace the unions – while challenging their leaders properly to represent all their members, including those who vote Tory, according to Renewal’s supporters.

MPs and candidates sympathetic to Renewal are not out to pick a fight with David Cameron or the front bench in general. But behind their campaign is a belief that the party isn’t doing enough to convince people from every part of society that it cares about them, and intends to make sure they share in the benefits of economic recovery. Meanwhile, this is exactly the ground on which Ed Miliband intends Labour to fight the next election.

Renewal appears to have attracted mainly newcomers to Parliament. Many of its supporters became MPs for the first time in 2010 – or, as in Rachel Maclean’s case, are still waiting for their opportunity.

But similar concerns have been raised by long-serving MP Andrew Mitchell, the MP for Sutton Coldfield. He wants the party to focus on cutting youth unemployment, providing more jobs, training places and apprenticeships.

He also shares with Renewal a concern at the failure of the Conservative Party to appeal to voters from ethnic minority communities - a failure which has damaged the party’s ability to win seats in the West Midlands.

A study by think tank British Future in partnership with website ConservativeHome, published at the Tory conference, highlighted the fact that 36 per cent of voters as a whole backed the Conservatives at the last election but only 16 per cent of voters from ethnic minorities. That 20 per cent gap translates into 500,000 “missing” Conservative votes, according to the report.

Of course, this is nothing more than an illustration. But it’s probably safe to say that Conservatives have still failed to shake off the legacy of Enoch Powell and racist language used in the 1964 Smethwick by-election – a point made Mr Zahawi – and this is costing them votes, and therefore seats.

It’s got to be a good thing for a party to be thinking about the future and how it could broaden its appeal, Perhaps it’s unusual to see this happening while a party is actually in power, but then again the Conservatives didn’t actually win a majority at the last election and they’re very aware of the fact.

But while Conservatives like Mr Mitchell and Renewal supporters are not opposing or criticising their leaders, they are in effect warning that the party must do more to win the support it needs if it is to form a majority government after the next election.

 

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