Tom Richmond: The Morrisons test that David Cameron needs to pass

The Morrisons store in Wetherby
The Morrisons store in Wetherby
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IT was ironic that David Cameron’s latest campaign visit to Leeds coincided with supermarket giant Morrisons culling hundreds of management jobs at its Bradford head office in order to recruit 5,000 additional shop floor staff.

For, in many respects, it is the Morrisons test that the Prime Minister needs to pass if the Conservatives are to stand any chance of being able to form a government in the aftermath of the May 7 election. Why?

Mr Cameron needs to find a way of replicating the no-nonsense management style of the newly-appointed Morrisons chief executive David Potts who has recognised, correctly, that this Yorkshire institution took its shoppers for granted under his predecessor Dalton Philips and that it needs to revitalise this relationship. The same applies to the Tories; the Prime Minister and his top team rely so much on their advisers that they have become too detached from the electorate.

It goes further. If the Conservatives are to win the most seats, the party needs to start appealing to the cross-section of society who patiently queue at the supermarket checkouts every week.

Just like those superstores, such as Morrisons, who are being squeezed by the emergence of the discount retailers, Mr Cameron needs to find a way to stop haemorrhaging disillusioned voters to the likes of Ukip.

And there is a third factor in play. The Morrisons brand is at its strongest in the North – and this is precisely where Mr Cameron needs to win votes in abundance if he is to not only hold those seats that the Tories won off Labour in 2010, but win target constituencies such as Halifax which are a bellwether for the country.

Significantly, the Tory leader did concede to me during a visit to The Yorkshire Post that the campaign so far has been negative and that the vitriol of Prime Minister’s Questions does not work on the campaign trail. Too right, but he needs to go further.

The language used by politicians – like Mr Cameron’s much-vaunted ‘long-term economic plan’ – is not heard at the supermarket checkout.

All politicians need to find a better way of relating to people – and it is, perhaps, significant that the PM then defended the plan to extend Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy’ scheme to housing association tenants by explaining, in personal terms, what it actually means to become a property owner for the first time. He does not need to do this by lambasting Labour. He needs to accentuate the positives – just like Morrisons which, after all, is still one of Yorkshire’s most successful companies in spite of its recent financial difficulties.

As for the rest of this week’s campaign, here is some food for thought:

1. Conservative clarity. Mr Cameron owes it to the country to be far more specific on the next tranche of welfare cuts, and the efficiencies that the NHS will be expected to make.

Having set this figure at a very precise £22bn, rather than £20bn or £25bn, they must have a clear idea and should not be afraid to share their thinking with voters – especially as the PM says that these savings can be achieved without compromising patient care.

2. Labour and the ‘Red Ed’ tag. Ed Miliband just about survived Thursday night’s TV exchanges between the Opposition leaders, but he looked deeply uncomfortable when pressed by the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett of the Greens to ease back on austerity. He was able to resist the economics of the financial fantasyland for 90 minutes, but could he do so for a five-year Parliamentary term? This is likely to be the week when the dynamics of a Labour-SNP administration become clearer, more so after Scotland’s First Minister described the Labour leader as a paler version of Mr Cameron.

3. Where’s Vince Cable? Has the Business Secretary gone to ground because he is no longer regarded as an electoral asset by the LiB Dems, or is he quietly exploring the likelihood of the Lib Dems going into coalition with Labour in the likelihood of Nick Clegg losing his 
seat in Sheffield Hallam? I wouldn’t put it past Cable who is a Labour man in all bar name.

4. The Ukip factor. Nigel Farage may have struck a chord when he accused the BBC of left-wing bias, but I sense that there are a significant number of voters who feel uncomfortable at associating themselves with Ukip and its policies of intolerance. Will this be to the advantage of Labour or the Tories? Time will tell.

5. Meet the people. In the week that postal ballots are issued, this should be the week when the pace of the election intensifies and the leaders start addressing public rallies rather than preaching to meetings packed with party apparatchiks. Like John Major in 1992, leaders should relish the chance to engage with hecklers.

In this regard, the supermarket analogy is a relevant one as this election comes down to the crunch. This election deserves to be won by the party that cuts to the chase, like the new Morrisons boss, and provides a no-frills agenda with key ingredients – value for money and sound service. Morrisons belatedly realises this; it’s time that David Cameron and Ed Miliband do likewise as they prepare for their own high noon on the high street.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk