A disabled Tory former minister has called on the Conservatives to rebrand themselves as the “workers’ party”, and has praised the campaigning efforts of his Labour opponents.
The arguments made by Robert Halfon, one of only six disabled MPs in the House of Commons, contrasted with the rhetoric of ministerial colleagues such as chancellor Philip Hammond and transport secretary Chris Grayling.
Hammond spoke of the “clear and present danger” of following “Corbyn’s Marxist policies”, while Grayling warned the conference of the “unthinkable” damage a Corbyn government would cause to the country.
But Halfon praised shadow chancellor John McDonnell for visiting striking McDonald’s workers and speaking last week at the Labour conference in Brighton of wanting to cut credit card debt.
Halfon, a former education and Cabinet Office minister, stressed that he disagreed with Labour’s “prescriptions” for solving the country’s problems.
But he told a fringe meeting, hosted by organisations including the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists: “They are campaigning in a way we are not campaigning.”
He admitted that he sometimes looks at Labour’s campaigning successes and thinks: “The White Walkers [from fantasy TV drama Game of Thrones] are coming for us.
“They have a membership and an infrastructure that we do not have [more than 750,000 members].
“The vast majority are not all from the far left, you’d be mistaken if you thought that, and they have a message.
“Last week they were talking about cutting credit card loan debt. These are things that matter to millions of people.
“John McDonnell went to see McDonald’s workers. Now if you are a parent of a McDonald’s worker on quite low pay, you would think, ‘That guy is on my side.’”
Halfon (pictured, left), who was being interviewed by Financial Times leader writer Sebastian Payne, said his own party was reaching out to working-class voters, for example by introducing the national living wage, raising the income tax threshold, and creating 3.4 million apprentices and millions of jobs.
But he said the Conservatives had no “narrative” to pull all these ideas together, so had been left with “a series of clothes pegs with no washing line”.
Halfon, who has been elected to chair the Commons education select committee, said there was “a problem with the Conservative brand across the country”, and this should be addressed by rebranding the Tories as the Conservative Workers’ Party, while making radical changes to its membership structure and even turning it into a trade union.
He said: “I would like our party literally to be a modern trade union in the sense that people join and get membership services, for example [we could] give every party member a fuel card that helps with the price of petrol, or give [young apprentices who joined the party] a free bus pass.”
Halfon, himself a member of the professionals’ trade union Prospect, also appealed to his party to remember that a third of union members vote Conservative.
He said that, although the hierarchies of unions are often dominated by those on the “militant” left, millions of “moderates” join trade unions for the services they offer, such as protecting workers’ rights and wages, or providing help with jobs and skills.
And he criticised how his own party in the 1980s had assumed that if the country made enough economic capital it would also increase social capital because it would “trickle down and you would have strong communities and strong society”.
He said: “Actually, that didn’t happen. Although we created a strong economy, we faced significant [social] problems.”
Halfon added: “We need to reclaim the language of compassion back from the left. We need to be the party of social justice. We need to be the party of redistribution.”
He also told the meeting that he was loyal to prime minister Theresa May and that she “should be there as long as she wants to be there”.
He said: “What I have made clear to her is that I will never say anything privately or publicly against the prime minister but I will speak honestly about… the radical reforms that we need to do in our policy because I think now is the time that we need to recognise the things that need fixing because if we don’t we are going potentially to fall off the edge of a cliff.”
He added: “She has said she has acknowledged she wants to get us out of the mess she got us in. I am sure we will see that.”