50 shades of tweed

Peter Smith on the Conservative Renewal Conference in Windsor last weekend

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Harris, herringbone, houndstooth...
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Peter Smith
On 27 September 2012 16:43

My heart slowly dipped as I entered the hotel lobby on Saturday morning and wandered towards registration and the main conference room. The decor was identikit, middle-luxury hotel; featureless pastels on the walls, shapeless statues on the shelves, mock-mahogany panels and doors, deep, synthetic carpet piling on the floors. At least the staff were pretty, for all their studied politeness and adopted blandness.

But my chagrin wasn’t aesthetic. Here I was, at the vaunted “Renewal of Conservatism” conference that promised to tell me “How to Secure a Conservative Majority in 2015”, one of only a handful of causally-dressed people in the room. Amidst the serried ranks of pinstrips - suits, ties, shirts, waistcoats - and tweeds – Harris, herringbone, houndstooth - I glimpsed few Levi-and-loafer combos.

Don’t get me wrong. Given the occasion, I should have expected the locals would turn out in force and dress accordingly: when in Windsor, and all that. Well done to Windsor Conservative Association for risking the wrath of Conservative Campaign HQ for organising an event presaged as being the Party’s “anti-Conference”.

‘Real’ Conference is shockingly expensive, after all. It is full of lobbyists and generally passes without impassioned floor speeches and the high drama of previous years (although perhaps this is a good thing: quantitative easing and bond prices are considered better in more measured terms than pit-closures and union strikes.)

The Renewal Conference modelled itself on fringe events found at Conference, where the likes of The TaxPayers’ Alliance and The Freedom Association – who sponsored Windsor – run packed talks by charismatic opinion-formers, and where shouting and cheering are positively encouraged. And given it was only £40 each for room hire, lots of coffee and a magnificent buffet lunch, kudos to WCA for keeping it inexpensive, if not cheap.

I have no complaints at all about the quality of speaking and the openness to ideas that was displayed in the different sessions. I expected top stuff from James Delingpole, Toby Young, Daniel Hannan and Tim Montgomerie, and wasn’t disappointed. Most of the day consisted of educative and entertaining panels on EU membership, taxation, education, freedom and the environment.

Speakers I hadn’t heard before also impressed strongly. Let me single out Steve Baker, the new MP for Wycombe, who spoke movingly about the moral case for low taxation coupled with a growth in mutual aid and co-operative groups; and Simon Dudley, a local councillor in Windsor and Maidenhead, telling us of the depressing lack of educational attainment he and a group of parents were addressing by setting up a free school.

Yet, as with the sartorial style of attendees, in Windsor I couldn’t help feel that the topics so eloquently considered were not quite the right ones if the rest of the country had turned up. With a few exceptions, there was a disconnect between good policy ideas – the benefits, say, of free schools, renegotiating Britain’s place in Europe, or reducing tax – and the mechanics of fighting the next General Election.

To give some examples, the Conservative Party has previously fought elections with Europe at the heart of its campaign messaging. It did not go well, in 2001, to harp on about the euro – even if the position taken by William Hague and his team proved a decade later to be spot on. Improving education results is important, but parents will want not only free schools but an improvement in standards at already-existing establishments for pupils at school today.

How do the Tories translate the need now for greater literacy and numeracy, better writing, and speaking skills, to vote-winning promises?

No one – not even socialists – disagrees with the idea of smaller taxes, but I was disappointed with the failure to address the quid pro quo: a necessary reduction in state spending as a consequence (increased debt being out of the question – a message the Party has successfully transmitted by now).

Steve Baker’s mention of mutuals and an expansion of self-help associations based on profession, birth nationality, local residency or religious faith, were good proposals; they fit within the broader Big Society theme too. But otherwise, reducing income tax was simply excused because more tax would be raised on the predicted Laffer curve. That isn’t good enough. How about some specific efficiency savings or cuts, which can be sold on the streets?

Each of the speakers could respond to my points and justify why they spoke as they did; they were unfortunately constrained by time. But in future local conferences, speakers and participants need ruthlessly to ask, what direct promise or warranty flows from this policy idea or that position? Otherwise, Conservative activists, candidates and the leadership will be masochistically knocking on doors and delivering leaflets with messages too remote properly to persuade.

As well as reframe the good ideas – neatly displayed at Windsor – the Party needs to adopt concerns on the cost of living and the fear of unemployment that are much more proximate and material to everyday concerns.

Relatively abstract and detached debates about the EU constitution, or the pressing duty to renegotiate Britain’s legal obligations to Brussels, must be directly linked to the effects of Euro-federalism on crime and policing on your streets and the pound in your pocket.  

Peter Smith was formerly research assistant to Edward Leigh MP and now works as a lawyer in London

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