When people think of Tories, they think of rich – or at least middle class – people, probably from the Home Counties, wearing red trousers, and possibly privately educated. I have friends who match that description, and I have nothing against Tories who have that kind of background.
But it isn’t my story.
Nor it is the story of the majority of Conservative Party members I have met.
My story starts in Worksop, a small ex-mining town in the north of England. My parents divorced when I was small, so I was raised in a single-parent family. Back then we did not have much money. We did not have much of anything. Clothes came from charity shops, and my mum often went without proper meals.
Before you get the wrong idea, I don’t want to paint a picture of gloom – I had a great childhood. A lack of money (and, as a child, being shielded from decisions about whether to pay the water rates or the electric bill this month) meant I was brought up to enjoy the simpler things in life: a good book, a picnic in the park… That’s something I’m very grateful for today, in this mad, materialistic world.
My mum was not interested in politics, but she lived & breathed what I see today as Conservative values.
She worked hard: for several years she worked full time, studied in the evenings, and took cleaning jobs on weekends to make ends meet. In short, she did everything she could to take care of her family.
She was full of aspiration: a bit of a buzzword now, but a word that really does mean something to me. After her divorce mum spent a short period of time on income support. She took a job where she was earning less than she received in benefits because, for her, that cut in income was never going to be the end of the story – she always wanted more (and she got it).
She was independently minded, and took responsibility for herself: sure, life dealt her a tough hand with an abusive husband and a failed marriage. But she didn’t spend time blaming others, nor playing the victim. She got on with building the life she wanted for herself and her daughter.
My mum was always family orientated: I grew up knowing I was centre of her world, and that I could always rely on her. Not just that, but she raised me saying “Emily, if you’re willing to work hard, you can have anything you want”.
So without coming from a political family, I was raised as a Conservative. And that was re-enforced by my broader environment.
When I was growing up in Worksop, it was bleak. There is no other word for it. There were families of generations of people who had never worked. Thatcher’s fault, apparently, despite the many available jobs at the then newly opened distribution centres owned by Wilko’s and B&Q.
Growing up, I had the sense that government was not helping. Worksop was a place of big government: welfare dependency, crime & policing, and active social services departments. It wasn’t doing good. It was putting a lid on aspiration and killing responsibility. Unemployment, drug abuse, broken families, and teenage mums were just a few of the consequences.
This theme of incompetent government carried over to education, too. The local authority controlled comprehensive school I attended was terrible. So terrible, in fact, that it was closed half way through my GCSEs. Sadly, the alternatives were not any better and were also forced to close and become academies under the coalition government a few years later.
At my school, teachers were known to say “well, you can’t expect anything from these kids – they’re never going to get anywhere”. It still makes my blood boil. Those kids had potential, and teachers judged them by their families and decided they weren’t worth the effort. This is what makes me eternally grateful for Michael Gove’s education reforms. I can see that they make a difference where it matters most – in places like Worksop.
Labour’s answer to the poor performing schools in Worksop was quite different: ‘Building Schools for the Future’. Otherwise known as ‘throwing money at a problem’. Millions of pounds for new school buildings and no attention to the poor leadership & teaching at the school. As mentioned above, it didn’t end well.
So how did I make the leap from all of this to the Conservative Party?
The first push came shortly before my school was closed. We wanted to save it. I wrote to my local MP – Labour, of course; the now pretty self-righteous John Mann. I didn’t hear back. Not a word. And not only that, he did nothing visible to us to save our school or help the kids affected.
I was already dissatisfied with Labour Party thinking, but that total disregard for the people our MP was supposed to serve was just what I needed to make me take a look at the Party I had heard hated the working classes.
And I found something that appealed to my values and the way I saw the world. I found a party that believes in hard work and aspiration. That believes people are better off when they have responsibility for their lives, keep more of what they earn through low tax, and live in a country which values entrepreneurialism.
Since those days as a 14/15 year old my ideology has developed. Now I’m not just a Conservative, but a libertarian too. My conservatism and libertarianism are still driven by those core values, and though I am often frustrated by our party leadership and some of our activists, I continue to believe we are, as a party, united around these basic principles: hard work, aspiration, personal responsibility, family & community.
The post is part of a new series, in which supporters of CfL talk about their beliefs and values. If you would like to take part please email firstname.lastname@example.org