On Thursday 7 February, Johnny Mercer, MP for Plymouth, gave a speech for Onward at our first After Hours event on Beyond the Core Vote: How political parties can reach into the political centre ground.
Johnny’s remarks are republished below.
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Thanks for coming. My name is Johnny Mercer and I am the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, first elected in 2015. When I was asked to speak about reaching out beyond the Conservative Party’s core vote, I was delighted, because that is basically my entire political philosophy. Probably because ‘beyond the core vote’ is exactly where I used to be, and fully intend on staying!
- I’ve had a unique journey into politics, and I wanted to talk a little of that tonight because my story tells us something about where politics is heading in future. I don’t think politics is dead. I think people – particularly young people are more engaged now than they ever have been, and I’ve proved it – twice – in a seat that has never before elected a Conservative Member of Parliament. I just think that people are fed up with what is on offer – that was the calculation I made in 2015, and was rewarded for with an almost five-fold increase in my majority when all of my colleagues took a bit of a hammering against Labour in 2017, in a seat that had never previously been Conservative.
- I wanted to talk on where we currently are – I’m not going to be negative but we must be courageous enough to hold a mirror up to ourselves – not for ourselves, but for the poorest people of this Country who need a good, competent modern compassionate, true Conservative Government more than anyone else.
- How we change – how do we as a movement – and I’ll call us a movement because that’s what we must transform ourselves in to – change. How do we adapt to meet the challenges ahead of us – the Conservatives have been in power for 70 of the last 100 years; why? Because they have always changed, adjusted, adapted to meet the challenges of the time, and we must now do that once more.
- The rewards on offer – the promised land where we meet the challenges posed to us by a Britain that is changing faster than most people can keep up with, and govern this great country in a manner that we can all be proud of, Conservative or not, working together for the common good – which is the only way we can really do it given the complexity of the challenges ahead; if we can do this, I believe our future as a Conservative Party will be very bright indeed.
Like most people out there, I had nothing to do with politics.
It wasn’t ‘in the family, or in my blood’. I thought most people in politics were playing a game, if truth be told.
Like everyone else I watched on as various political scandals hit the airwaves from time-to-time, but I had little interest in getting involved. I hadn’t even voted until the 2015 general election.
I wasn’t a political animal. I was a soldier…
I was driven by the same motivational factor as many people are – injustice. For me it was Veterans care.
It’s hard to really get across to those who have not served the injustice of Veterans care in this Country.
Saw some very brave young men and women do some very brave things.
Saw the Politicians come out to theatre, saw them at the Cenotaph on remembrance Sunday, and I watched the contrast between that and how it actually felt like to be a veteran in this country at the moment, or the family of someone who had been killed.
2012 more of them killed themselves than were killed in the conflict. Something had to change. I had to join a party
Someone like me coming into politics genuinely has to weigh up which party to join.
And for a lot of people in this country they have switched which party they vote for – so we need to get away from this idea that the tribalism we see that dominates every-day life here in Westminster is replicated across the Country.
In my experience it is not, and this has fueled our current predicament.
But coming from a City like mine – deprived, poor life chances, generations of talented Plymothians being left on the welfare state, for me it was clear that I was like many in this country – a non-voting, centrist, center right conservative.
I joined the Conservatives – went to meet my local association. There were seven of them.
The youngest was 79 years old. I did my parliamentary assessment board, all the while struggling to understand why CCHQ were trying to steer me away from standing for Plymouth. They had done some polling; they gave me a 1% chance of success.
But I looked at the results. Some voted Labour, some voted Tory, but vast majority were just like me – not engaged. Engage just some, and that would push a Tory vote over the line.
CCHQ thought I was mad. I left the Army before my pension point. Went onto benefits, sold the cars and cycled the kids to school. Worked on a building site. Drew up map of Plymouth. Marked up every house. Went out one day in 2014 and worked out how many we could do in a day. Worked back from 5th May. Started 2nd Jan.
Learned everything I needed to know in those six months. Why did people not vote? What did they want from politics? Why had their lives gone awry? Why did they never leave their homes? Why were too many people too lonely? Why was Mental Health so badly under-prioritised?
Also saw the good stuff – the transformation of the economy in a City like Plymouth. The Life Chances agenda set me on fire. I didn’t come from an easy background.
The single biggest factor that affected life chances was having a job and in Plymouth unemployment had fallen 52%.
Was it perfect? No. Zero-hours etc. But an ethos, in a City where my soldiers were leaving the Army and taking home more money on a life on state welfare, and certainly 50% more than the average wage.
Election night – won. Came to London.
After several years, I want to say something about the state we are in. Last Autumn I got into some trouble on this; I will try and be a little more nuanced tonight. Government is difficult – no doubt about it. The life of an MP is difficult, no doubt about it.
Running a political party – a voluntary organisation lest we forget is very difficult – seen by recent controversies in both Labour and Conservative Parties.
But we are here to serve the people. And there is a seriously angry country out there, seemingly more divided than it has ever been; seemingly more disconnected from Westminster than it has ever been, and we have to ask ourselves what the hell is going on?
Because MP’s are not bad people who set out to deliberately run the country badly, or inflict suffering on their constituents. They come down here to work hard and make people’s lives better.
Governments of all shades have tried hard to alleviate poverty – in my mind by too often trying to increase personal income to push families just the right side of the latest defined ‘poverty line’ rather than investing in the real root causes of poverty. But they’ve tried.
But as I come to London, indeed as I walk around my constituency I face a very clear dichotomy. I come to London and there are some amazing think tanks working night and day to understand and analyse what is going on.
By any measure, living standards overall continue to rise, having doubled since the 1970’s.
You can talk about absolute poverty rising or falling either side of an arbitrary line, but the truth is we all limp to the end of the year and we’ve all seen those facebook adverts which show – despite all the doom and gloom we all feel, and how politics is getting crazier and crazier – we are generally wealthier, generally healthier and can expect to live generally longer than we did before.
But if anything I see the injustices becoming more acute. I see more homeless on the streets of this capital City than I ever have before, and I see more in Plymouth.
I hear the mental health care horror stories in my surgeries and on the door steps
I see record numbers of children taken into state care
I read about issues like modern slavery, in Plymouth and nationwide
The list goes on…there is so much work to do
And I have to ask who is this country really changing for? Are we actually getting it right, or are we leaving too many people behind?
In some ways, BREXIT gave us the answer.
That vote was seismic in many ways, and I will use BREXIT as the prism to talk briefly about where we currently are.
Because it broke new ground. For the first time ever – in what was the biggest political exercise in this nation’s history, people voted for politics over economics. It was seismic. Unprecedented.
In the face of repeatedly being told that voting to leave the EU would make them worse off, Britain still voted to leave the EU.
Was it about Europe? Yes. But it was about far more than that.
Lost in all the analysis over the past nearly three years, all the fighting and the ideological pursuits has been why people actually voted for BREXIT.
Is my community – which voted almost 70% to leave, really so obsessed with Europe, or does the EU represent something else to them?
Because that vote revealed a direct correlation between household income and your likelihood to vote leave.
The poorer you were, the more likely you were to vote leave.
The majority of those not in work backed leave. If you were in receipt of a state pension, you were more likely to back leave.
If you were living in council housing, or were a social housing tenant, you were more likely to back leave.
Yes it was about “taking back control”, as vote leave so skillfully called themselves.
But it was actually about a people taking back control of their lives, of a country taking back control of their government, and to not heed that lesson now – of why people voted for BREXIT could be fatal to all centrists and all moderates in the years ahead.
BREXIT happened because millions of ordinary people in this country thought Westminster didn’t know – yet alone cared – what it was really like to walk in their shoes.
Politics didn’t and still does not work for the people who need it most in this country
Think about Government for a minute – most of us are un-reliant on it day to day
But for others, for those really struggling against the tide in places like Plymouth, Government’s importance cannot be overstated
The NHS is a lifeline
Free School Meals mean the kids can eat every day
Social housing provides a roof over families, or the hope they’ll soon have one
Universal Credit isn’t some policy debate, it’s real life
The state pension is what pays for heating and eating
Government for them is huge
The truth is many such people gave the ‘establishment’ a two fingered salute in that BREXIT vote, and they were right to do so.
They are thirsty for leadership. Hungry for authentic, sensible Government…Government on their side, listening to their concerns, backing their families, creating hope for their futures
But as politicians, we have not kept up.
And crucially our two main parties, the vehicles through which most politics in this country is conducted – have not kept up.
There is too much hate in the ranks. Whatever your view of the people who have left – who were my friends – any broad party that does not have room for centrist, moderate people needs a period of sincere reflection.
Less shouting, more honesty in the mirror.
The hounding of Luciana Berger was a national disgrace too – on Labour of course, but on Conservatives too…we failed to neutralize this hatred Corbyn has unlocked on the left at the last General Election, and his grip on one of the most special and important political parties in the world has tightened ever since.
This situation – this democratic deficit – this breakdown between the governed and the governors has to end.
It is no good my illustrious predecessors wringing their hands over BREXIT any more. We have to tackle the root causes of BREXIT.
We must redouble our efforts to re-make politics truly “of, by and for the people.”
Getting back to governing with integrity and values – the complete antidote of this profession of insincerity we seem to have created that is modern politics.
It’s gone on for too long, and it hurts too many people.
The inauthentic nature of modern politics is in my view by far and away the number one reason for BREXIT; the number one reason we are where we are today.
For me, its about four P’s. We’re not very bright in the army, so we need to make things start with the same letter so we can remember them.
It’s all about the right balance of People, policies, principles and perspective.
Look, we must be honest with ourselves. I love many of my colleagues dearly, but we’ve selected too many of the wrong people over the last twenty years.
There are some incredibly talented modern compassionate conservatives currently in the House of Commons.
They might not be on the payroll; they might not be saying the same things over and over again on the radio four today programme, or in the seemingly endless BREXIT debates in the chamber.
They are probably to be found still working shifts as an A&E nurse, like Maria Caulfield.
Or campaigning on social housing like Scott Mann
Or like Tracey Crouch, forcing the Government to concede where it shouldn’t have even bothered to have a fight – on fixed odds betting terminals
We have to get the people right – it is a fundamentally different job for me here – genuinely a different occupation this, than for some of my colleagues who see politics as an end-state; a profession.
Having to go out and advocate for – sell policies we have voted on during the week on any given Sunday – it introduces a mindset that is fundamentally different from the ‘career politician’.
You need both types of politicians – those who have seen it all before; those with the experience in this field – like Oliver Dowden, to run a political machine.
But you must get the balance right, and at the moment it is not. The career politician’s role in BREXIT is very easy to see, as I alluded to earlier.
The second part of change is policy. Policy is vital – it is not the ownership of one party – income tax thresholds (Lib Dem policy) and minimum wage legislation (Tories on the wrong side of) in poorer areas have had some of the greatest effect.
Policy, carefully and thoughtfully done, changes lives and gets people out to vote – Universal Credit – that most difficult of reforms, has far more supporters than it does detractors – crucially amongst those who work in this field day after day.
Some of the cases are unacceptable, but it is changing our most hard -to-reach lives, and it is the future, and every man woman and child in the Conservative party should be out there espousing for it every day against a tide of mis-information and frankly unacceptable administrative cock-ups.
But think – and this is the critical part – think about what really gets people to vote.
What really makes a busy young family, with two naughty kids who won’t get ready for school, with a young mum and dad working all the hours God sends to pay the rent – what makes them make time in their day on an inevitably wet Thursday in May, to actually go and vote.
I’ll tell you now.
It’s ethos; it’s values; it’s what sort of country they want to live in, what sort of representation they want to have in Parliament, what sort of Prime Minister they want.
It’s the values and ethos that policy conveys.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
Last week I went to a mental health institution in Devon. Did you know that the same two people, from the same educational and social back-grounds. With the same money and chances in life, take the two of them, if you have a mental health challenge your life expectancy is 19 years less than if you didn’t? And yet we are still failing to invest properly into mental health services. What values does that say we have in Britain in 2019?
Did you know that a month ago, before Amber Rudd stepped in. my Party was set to retrospectively apply the two child limit to those on state welfare – impoverishing millions – particularly single mothers over night? Again, what does this say about our values?
The money taken out of Universal credit – really?
Or what about prosecuting pensioners who served in Northern Ireland?
I could go on, but I won’t. But what I am trying to say is these things speak to a set of values – an ethos that makes me uncomfortable, and not surprised at our current predicament.
An establishment more concerned with how policy and government ‘looks’ than how it actually ‘feels’ for those who need it most – remember those of whom I spoke for whom Government is huge.
Guys this is not the world just according to Johnny Mercer – it is reflected in polling. Did you know that the average age of a Conservative voter is now over 50 years old? It’s gone up five years in the last two.
73% of 18-24 year old women voted for Corbyn in 2017.
Labour has a median 33 point lead amongst 18-35’s.
Lots went wrong in 2017, but for me the most painful part was watching the 25’s to 44’s who left us in their droves. An ambitious, modern, aspirational Conservative Party’s target audience, almost entirely disappeared.
This drop, set against a younger audience more engaged than ever before, more values-focused than we’ve seen in living memory – is a huge area of concern.
This is a call to action to those in my party who care about us remaining the natural party of Government.
The status quo is not going to be good enough anymore.
Never before has ethos and values been so important in the world, in the lives of millions of younger and middle aged men and women up and down this country – look how the #metoo movement caught on.. The world is changing, what people want from politics is changing – we must heed that call and sort out our values and ethos. We must think about our policies through the prism of our values. And we must as a party be led in the same way.
But in order to make this change, we must alter our perspective – the fourth P – how we look at our endeavors – how we measure ourselves and whether or not this country is actually changing for the people we want it to.
Do we sit in London and talk about how much we put into the system? Do we talk about £”x”bn we are putting into this, and £”x”bn we are putting into that?
Or do actually have the courage we turn that telescope around, by asking what it actually feels like to live and work in some of Britain’s most challenging areas of society in 2019? What’s it like to work in our child protection, what’s it like to work in that secure mental health facility I visited last week, or have a disabled child in Britain in 2019?
People are seeing through the spin – they have for some time.
Instead they expect the Conservative party to wake up. Put our house in order. Walk in people’s shoes. Govern with compassion as well as fiscal competence. Look for common ground. Reject the extremes. Ditch the spin. Take them seriously.
For me it all boils down – of course to leadership. These four ‘p’s are are all crafted by and set by the leadership.
When values are clear, the policies follow. My party leadership needs to be clear, if we are to move forward as one, exactly what our values are and mean for the United Kingdom in 2019.
If we do that, we’ll reach out to plenty of people who feel politically homeless. We’ll connect. We’ll build a movement, not a party.
Part 4 – What’s at stake – the promised land
In the midst of our current political uncertainty, there is, I think a real opportunity. My consistent message, and I may be alone here – is actually one of optimism. Because whilst the risks have never been more severe, the opportunities to go and ignite this country on fire politically, have never been potentially so great.
But I’ve noticed that optimism is risky. You look at the last few elections – 2010, 2015, 2017 – all recent elections have been won on fear. Fear is easier to poll, and it is easier to game the result.
But my experience of knocking on doors in Plymouth, and from travelling around the country, and from speaking to audiences like this one tonight is this: we have no real reason to fear.
There is a country out there, full of hope, full of optimism, desperately looking for something to vote for.
We are not are hard left country – people don’t want the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn. They want a modern, centre-right values led party.
The divergence of left and right has left a huge gaping field in the middle ground. Ironically, that’s what the new Independent Group has realised. But they don’t have the answers this country needs. They are united by what they are against: Brexit. I’m more interested in uniting around what we are for.
And this middle ground is occupied by a different group of people than it was a decade ago. These voters care deeply about society and the world they live in.
They are more plugged in and connected (facebook) than ever before. They are more politically aware than ever before.
They are more transient than ever before but still want to have a stake in society.
One way we could meet that need is in terms of giving, especially political giving – I know lots of people who would give but who don’t.
We need to make it easier to give. I was in Washington two weeks ago speaking to people and parties that have transformed political giving, thereby giving more and more people a stake in politics.
But the focus is on the ‘giving’ rather than the money – high volume low value – a complete reverse of where the Conservative’s are now.
A change like this would give people skin in the game. It makes politics more tangible, more real.
And by establishing that link – between the party and the people – we can rebuild trust in politics.
As a nation we must surely judge itself on how we look after our most vulnerable, with compassion – those who I met on the doors first in 2015 in Plymouth who through yes a couple of bad decisions but a hell of a lot of bad luck, could be any one of us.
We must tackle the basic inequalities and injustices that are baked into people’s lives from such an early age – from as young as three years old, someone’s live chances can be dramatically reduced by the environment in which they grow up in.
We must tackle poverty – yes, but the root causes of poverty – family breakdown, lack of work, and a lack of skills and education.
I have this dream of rebranding the Conservatives as poverty fighters – everyone thinks of us as wanting money for the sake of it; of creating wealth for our mates in big business; of being more obsessed with the economy than the life chances agenda.
Don’t get me wrong – wealth creation is vital; we must strain every sinew to maximise it. But make sure people understand it is for a different purpose – fighting poverty in Britain in 2019 at every turn.
And in so doing these things place the authenticity back into politics.
Get the values right – get the ethos right, and you will bring the British people with you to meet the exceptional challenges we face ahead of us. Social care, the NHS, an economy that is going to be significantly reconfigured by BREXIT – we can meet these challenges, if we bring the British people with us.
We must try to create a movement. Politics is alive in this country. People are crying out for leadership. Every time I have spoken out, I must be honest I have had thousands of letters. And that’s not about me – I assure you.
It’s because there is a huge heart out there in this country longing for change, longing to be reflected in and represented in Westminster.
I honestly believe, you give them something to vote for, and they will come – like I did in Plymouth in 2015.
It’ll be like dropping a match into some petrol
We can set this country on fire centered around a modern, compassionate Conservative party that genuinely holds itself to account by the values and ethos it displays.
Fighting poverty, reforming public services, encouraging wealth creation and judging ourselves fundamentally by what it’s like to live in Britain today in some of our most challenging parts of society.
That’s the promised land and it’s within our grasp.
The sands are shifting under our feet. It’s like a runaway horse. Don’t watch it go, or let others be the ones to tame it – the current lot are still in the stable.
We must tame it – our generation – this generation are still in the stable. It’s completely achievable. And that’s why I’m so optimistic for what’s ahead. Thank you.