Gordon Henderson MP: The General Election was a disaster because we alienated our core voters
It’s a cold Thursday morning when Gordon Henderson’s office rings me. Having been MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey in Kent since 2010, and being the second Brexit-supporting MP I had spoken to in less than a week, I was keen to get to know Henderson’s opinion on the recent developments in the negotiations – which involved the two-year transitional period including remaining under the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction, and the admittance that we would contribute to the European budget after formally leaving on the 29th March 2019.
Henderson, pleased – if mildly surprised – with the result of June 23rd 2016 and the formal triggering of Article 50 this year, and long-standing member of the Better Off Out campaign, is surprisingly happy and optimistic with the transition agreement being worked out. “As someone who has been in business all my life, I recognise that the most important part of leaving is negotiating a decent arrangement with the EU. I am pro-European, but anti-EU because being part of the European Parliament forces us to give up part of our sovereignty to that Parliament. Getting the best deal will take time and a great deal of flexibility on our part.
“Part of the negotiation may very well have to be a transition period during which businesses in this country continue to have access to the European Market. So I don’t mind having that transition period, provided that during that period we are not tied into all the rules and regulations of Europe that we don’t want to be.”
And Henderson can clearly and easily reconcile remaining under the ECJ’s jurisdiction with his keen desire to leave. “One of the reasons we want a transition period is so that local business who currently rely on workers from the EU continue to have access to those EU workers, until we have time to impose a system that allows us to control the flow of migration. With the ECJ’s jurisdiction, it ensures the rights of those EU citizens are still respected. As long as we recognise on both sides that once that transition period is over, we leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ, the Single Market and the Common Fisheries Policy and all this sort of thing – I think it reconciles fairly easily. We will voluntarily agree to remain under the rules of these bodies, up until we leave.”
Following on from this, Henderson refuses to be drawn into discussions around Mrs. May’s premiership, stating “we should not speculate on May’s position. All Conservatives are falling into the trap of the media – we should keep our concerns in-house,” but in his diagnosis of the General Election, Henderson is unequivocal. “It was a disaster. I have expressed that view to the Prime Minister directly. And it was a disaster on a number of fronts: none of the traditional practices of campaigning were followed in this election, and it was completely unprofessional, not least because of a lack of campaigning strategy; and the moment things changed – you can look at the opinion polls – was immediately at the time our manifesto was released, and the one truism in politics is you never, ever introduce policies in your manifesto that are a) unnecessary, and b) harm your core supporters. And like it or not, our core supporters are people over 50,” referring of course to the debacle over the so-called “Dementia Tax”.
“We have support amongst youngsters as well, and I appreciate that,” Henderson continues, “but our core voters are the over-50s, who are the most likely to vote. So why would you ever introduce a policy that would alienate your core supporters? And that’s what we did: we alienated our core voters. And they took the view that they weren’t going to vote Conservative, but they weren’t going to vote at all – but that’s an encouraging sign, because it means we can win those voters back.”
On the youth vote as well, Henderson offers a solid, if unoriginal statement. “The Labour Party make promises that they know they couldn’t deliver on, and young people flocked to that because it was the flavour of the month. But the problem with the flavour of the month is that it eventually leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And we can combat this by getting our messages over to younger voters – we can’t promise the same things as Labour, because we recognise that those young people who would benefit from Labour’s policies will eventually be the ones paying back the deficit built up under a Labour government.”
When I offer that there is actually a huge amount of support for the Conservative Party and conservatism amongst the young, Henderson fully agrees, and provides some nice insight to his own constituency. “During the campaign, I had more young people working on my campaign than Labour did. These young people who are living and working recognise that they would be the ones funding these poor policies – we just have to keep explaining our policies to young people. And we have to recognise that young people are intelligent, we should not patronise them – young people going to university are often more radical than their parents. But we have to recognise that once they enter work, have a family, they become conservative.
“We have to stop trying to buy them off – we have to explain what conservatism is, and for me conservatism is about one thing. It is about the right of the individual to live their life the way they want to live their life, free from interference from the State. That is the fundamental message of conservatism. We shouldn’t be knocking Labour all the time – we’re all trying to do the best we can for people. If young people want to go through their lives, living the way they want to live, not being beholden to the State, keeping more of their money and decide how they want to spend that money – whether it’s to help other people or spend it on themselves – then they should be voting conservative.”
Gordon Henderson is the Member of Parliament for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.