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In the turbulent waters of contemporary politics, the Conservative Party finds itself navigating treacherous currents. The recent local and mayoral elections have underscored a dire need for introspection and course correction. As the Party grapples with its electoral woes, it is time to recognize that the path to redemption lies in a return to the centre ground, anchored by pragmatic policies that resonate with younger voters. The Party must urgently pivot. A renewed focus on housing, the environment and investment, and a pragmatic stance on Brexit, are all imperative for the Conservatives’ survival and success.

The Conservative Party suffered significant losses across England, losing control of ten out of the 18 councils they were defending. Nearly half of their nearly 1,000 councillors up for re-election were unseated, signalling widespread discontent among voters. The Blackpool South parliamentary by-election alone saw a direct swing to Labour of over 20 percentage points, marking the fifth such loss for the Tories in the last 12 months.

In my home city of London, Sadiq Khan was re-elected for an historic third term, securing the second-largest majority in the history of the London mayoralty in the process. The Labour incumbent won 1,088,225 votes – a majority of 275,828 over his main rival, Conservative candidate Susan Hall.

Susan Hall was the wrong candidate for the job. It is crucial that the Conservative Party learns from these mistakes and selects a pragmatic, forward-looking candidate next time, capable of connecting with younger voters and inspiring a vision for the future of our capital.

It is clear that the Conservative Party’s current trajectory is leading them towards electoral disaster. The recent polling data paints a bleak picture: young voters are increasingly disillusioned and disenfranchised from the party with only a dismal 1% of 18-24 year-olds planning to vote Conservative in the next election. Instead of doubling down on divisive policies and ideological fervour, it is time for the Conservatives to return to their pragmatic, centrist roots.

Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister was marked by a commitment to fiscal responsibility coupled with strategic investments in crucial infrastructure projects. From the Channel Tunnel to the rejuvenation of the Docklands in London, the Conservatives demonstrated a willingness to tackle long-term challenges head-on, laying the foundations for economic prosperity and growth. Today, as we face pressing issues, from housing shortages to outdated transportation networks, the Conservatives must channel Thatcher’s legacy and prioritise investment in homes and infrastructure once again.

The housing crisis is not merely a policy challenge; it is a generational burden weighing heavily on the aspirations of young people. Skyrocketing rents and unattainable property prices have created a landscape of despair for many aspiring homeowners. The Conservatives must champion initiatives that prioritise affordable housing, such as increasing the supply of homes, incentivizing property developers to build affordable housing and implementing innovative solutions like community land trusts. By addressing the housing crisis head-on, the party can demonstrate its commitment to fostering social mobility and securing the future for younger generations.

One of the biggest barriers preventing young people from achieving financial stability and buying their own homes is the burden of high taxes. Scrapping national insurance would be a tangible way to show young people that the government is listening to their concerns and taking action to address them. By freeing up more of their hard-earned money, the government can empower professionals to pursue their goals and aspirations without being weighed down by excessive taxation.

Second, embracing green initiatives could position the UK as a global leader in emerging industries while creating sustainable jobs for the future. Rishi Sunak’s pivot away from net zero policies after the Uxbridge by-election was misguided and, as I warned at the time,  risked alienating young voters and stifling economic growth. Unlike his predecessor Boris Johnson, Sunak does not seem to see environmental policies as a priority or an opportunity for growth. This detachment could cost the Conservative Party dearly in the long run. 

Third, Brexit remains a contentious issue that has polarised the nation. The Conservatives must adopt a pragmatic approach to Brexit that minimises disruption and maximises benefits for all stakeholders. This entails prioritising trade agreements that preserve economic ties with Europe while forging new partnerships across the globe. 

Labour’s dismissal of a recent EU proposal to reopen freedom of movement for young adults was not only short-sighted, but a missed opportunity for progressive policy-making. While Labour fumbles, the Conservative Party should take note and consider adopting this bold proposal as a means to attract younger voters.

And finally, investing in infrastructure and regulatory reform can bolster the UK’s competitiveness and economic growth in the post-Brexit era. By steering clear of ideological dogma and embracing pragmatic solutions, the Conservatives can demonstrate their commitment to safeguarding the national interest while building bridges with the younger voters who value pragmatism over ideology.

Economic competitiveness and Brexit are not unrelated. In 2022, Andy Street told BBC Radio 4 that Brexit was bad for business, and that there had been “some consequences” for business in his region as a result. He went on to say that more support was needed to help exporters: “We do have to deal with the whole issue of how easy it is to export, that’s paper work, the physical movement… It’s also the support for business to export, so that is definitely an issue.”

Ultimately, these local elections were about the tale of two mayoral candidates who neatly reflect the ongoing battle for the soul of the party. Andy Street, the outgoing Mayor of the West Midlands, exemplified the kind of centrist leadership that resonates with voters across the political spectrum. Street’s focus on pro-growth policies, effective governance and collaboration with diverse stakeholders earned him widespread respect and admiration. His defeat is a loss not only for the West Midlands, but for the Conservative Party as a whole.

On the other hand, Susan Hall’s mayoral campaign in London was a textbook example of how not to appeal to voters – especially younger generations. Hall’s lacklustre candidacy, negative messaging and disconnect from the values and aspirations of Londoners ultimately led to her much more decisive defeat. 

I have voted Conservative my entire life, but I can neither confirm nor deny whether I spoiled my ballot for the London mayoral contest on Thursday.

The Conservative Party stands at a crossroads. To secure its relevance and electoral prospects, the party must return to the centre ground, focusing on housing, investment, economic growth and adopting a pragmatic stance on Brexit. Only by embracing centrism can the party hope to remain relevant and competitive in the years to come.

Isabella Wallersteiner is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

[Image: pablobenii]