The Tories can’t rely on directionless Ed Miliband to gift them 2015 victory

SOME Conservative MPs are in an optimistic, even euphoric, mood. The economy is recovering as is, crucially, public confidence in the government’s stewardship of it. At the same time, Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party is characterised by drift and looks directionless. Labour grandees are turning on their leader and even seemingly loyal shadow cabinet members are talking openly about Miliband’s unpopularity.

With this backdrop, there’s little surprise that the Conservatives are feeling more buoyant than they have for some time. Lynton Crosby’s arrival instilling real message discipline, the appointment of Barack Obama’s campaign guru Jim Messina, and several decisive Prime Minister’s Questions victories for David Cameron before recess have also substantially boosted the Conservative mood.

While they’re enjoying a break from Westminster, however, Conservative MPs should reflect on the fact that they still face significant barriers to winning a substantial overall majority. The Conservatives cannot afford to be complacent or ignore the obstacles that will have meant that, by 2015, it will be 23 years since they last formed a government with an overall majority. As the boundary changes were axed, the party still has to win by around 7 per cent in order to win by even a tiny margin of seats. This will mean broadening the party’s appeal, and winning over voters who voted Labour or Liberal Democrat in 2010.

The Conservative Party continues to have real difficulty winning over ethnic minority voters, for instance, with only 16 per cent voting Tory at the last election compared with the 68 per cent who voted Labour. It’s also not doing well enough outside its traditional heartland – particularly in Scotland and the cities of the North and Midlands. The Tories hold only 20 of the 124 seats in the North and Midlands, and there’s not even a Conservative councillor, let alone an MP, in the great Northern cities of Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool. According to a 2012 YouGov poll for Policy Exchange, 64 per cent of voters continue to regard the Conservatives as the party of the rich, not ordinary people.

There is an opportunity for the Tories to make a breakthrough – particularly in parts of the North and Midlands over the next few years, as Labour becomes ever more detached from ordinary working voters. On almost every issue, from welfare reform to Europe, from immigration to the economy, the Labour leadership has become “lattefied” – representing the views of a small elite.

At the last election, Labour’s vote among the skilled working class nosedived from over half in Tony Blair’s first two election victories to less than a third in 2010. Labour’s vote in the North East, for example, has fallen from around 60 per cent in Blair’s pomp, to around 40 per cent in 2010.

But the Conservatives have to do more if they’re to capitalise on the opportunity offered by Labour’s growing detachment from ordinary working people. It’s important for the Tories that they’re seen as understanding of how people are struggling with the rising cost of living, and are seen to be doing something about it. The fuel duty freeze, which has been in place for over two years, was a very welcome move. But if possible, the Tories should consider how they can further ease the pressure caused by rising bills and a squeeze in living standards (which, contrary to Labour’s rhetoric, goes back as far as 2005).

In parts of the North and the Midlands, it’s also crucial that the Conservatives become associated with job creation and economic renaissance – in many places they’re still associated with unemployment and deindustrialisation. There has already been good news in parts of the North following a boost in private sector jobs, but policies designed to create jobs – like devolving planning powers – could further help Northern cities expand, and associate the Tories with regional economic growth. A Conservative message that included housebuilding, tackling vested interests in both the public and private sectors, and helping the low paid would also help the Tories make a breakthrough outside their heartland.

The Conservative Party can win the next election with an overall majority, and it can get second place back in a number of seats where it’s long since slipped to third. But it cannot rely on Miliband’s weakness and a recovering economy to deliver victory. To win a sustainable majority, the Tories must be serious about broadening their appeal and winning over voters who might not have voted Conservative before.

David Skelton is director of Renewal, dedicated to broadening the appeal of the Conservative Party outside of its traditional heartland. You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton