UK Politics

Are the Conservatives getting through to 'blue collar' voters?

David Cameron speaking to apprentices and engineers on a recent visit to an Airbus factory
Image caption Activists suggest the party leadership needs to hone its message on aspiration

The sweet, alluring smell of biscuits being baked is as striking as the amount that are churned out - 80,000 tonnes of snacks a year trundle out of the ovens at the McVities factory in Carlisle. That's 7.6 million biscuits a day.

For Conservative activist Clark Vasey, who grew up in the city, factories like this and those who work here epitomise the type of people political parties have to win over to win power.

Mr Vasey has set up Blue Collar Conservatism with the aim of doing just that for the Tories.

"My father worked in a factory," he says. "My mum worked behind the counter of House of Fraser in Carlisle and left school when she was 14.

"And it was really her values of responsibility, of getting on and doing it yourself and you don't look to others to do it for you, that led me ultimately to be a Conservative."

Southern perception

The Blue Collar group is a loose collection of activists and MPs, aiming to provoke discussion via essays on its website.

The local MP is John Stevenson. He is the first Conservative to represent the city in Parliament since 1959 and nurses a slim majority of just 853.

"I'm northern, I'm state educated, I live in the north and I represent a northern seat," he says.

"So the Conservative Party is a national party. I do accept that there is sometimes a perception that is more southern based.

"But I think our message undoubtedly resonates with people right across the country. I think our failing at times is getting the Conservative brand linked with those policies."

Mr Stevenson taps into a recurring theme amongst those activists looking at the party's appeal amongst blue collar workers.

The Conservative brand is still damaged in some people's eyes and incidents like the former Chief Whip's row with police officers in Downing Street, in which it was alleged he called them 'plebs', doesn't help one bit.

'Meaning of aspiration'

"Certain events are powerful because they do reinforce negatives, says David Skelton, the deputy director at the centre right think tank Policy Exchange.

"The Conservatives are still viewed by a large majority of voters as the party of the rich and not the party of ordinary people, which is why they have to work really hard to define a compelling blue collar message."

"They used to have six MPs in Liverpool. They used to have three MPs in Newcastle. They used to have MPs in Sheffield and Manchester.

"They now not only don't have a single MP in those cities, they don't have a single councillor."

This political reality, for some, requires a calibrating of the buzzwords that are at the heart of the Conservative message.

"Aspiration is not the same for everyone," suggests Clark Vasey.

"There tends to be a belief that the guy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and gets all the way to the top is what it is all about.

"For most people that is not what it is all about. It is about understanding where aspiration is and that it looks different for different people. It may not be to climb right to the top of the ladder. It may be to climb one or two rungs of the ladder."

'Not nasty'

Others point to the binary narrative that's emerged surrounding the debate about benefits: with talk of strivers, shirkers and scroungers.

Image caption The squeeze in living standards is hurting the Conservatives, observers say

"500 people lost their jobs at a factory in my constituency a month or two ago," Martin Vickers, the Conservative MP for Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, told the BBC.

"Some of them will inevitably end up on benefits for perhaps some months,"

"We don't want to be painting ourselves as being nasty to people on benefits, because they are legitimate people drawing benefits.

"They have paid into the system all their working lives and they have come on hard times and that is what the system was originally devised for and so it should.

"So we do have to be careful."

Core themes

Analysts believe the Conservatives should focus on two core themes: jobs and the cost of living.

"One of the absolute major issues for blue collar voters at the moment is the cost of living," David Skelton adds.

"Last year was the biggest fall in real incomes for about 30 years. And one of the Tories' achilles heels is that they are associated with unemployment and associated with de-industrialisation.

"This is why the Conservatives in particular have to address job creation and tackle unemployment in a lot of northern and Midlands towns."

The Blue Collar Conservatism group has already attracted the support, on its website, of around a third of the parliamentary party.

Some of those backing its ideas are more blue blooded than blue collar, which suggests its pitch is one widely accepted across the party.

The challenge for them now it to turn that support into concrete policies.

More on this story