The Conservatives still have to fight, and win, the ideological battle for future prosperity
To have the courage of your convictions strengthens rather than hinders you. It’s time to shake off the obsession with the centre ground and offer the public a positive vision for the future
Working in Westminster is a baptism of fire. The many young policy analysts, think-tankers and campaigners who occupy the streets surrounding Parliament have exceptional knowledge of both policy and party politics which extends far beyond their own specialism. Barely a day goes by without a high-profile debate, book launch or speech. The place is buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm.
But in many ways Westminster is an incredibly frustrating place. Though government politicians regularly engage with and participate in the events described, openly expressing their views, the resulting debates in the Commons on the very same issues are for the most part sterile. The Conservative party conference, which I attended, was so stage-managed at times that it was almost laughable. There was little substance and minimal meaningful discussion.
Over the past few weeks, I have pondered why we see such a disparity. I know, from having spoken to many politicians, that they are more radical than their Parliamentary voting records, or indeed their department’s policy output, would suggest. So why the difference?
It’s tempting to conclude that a Coalition government requires a degree of ‘pragmatism’ – and that’s what we’re seeing. Others claim, wrongly, that the inertia of the civil service is to blame. In my view, there’s something much deeper at work here.
The Coalition government has failed to shake off the worst aspects of Blairism. At best they’ve failed to shake off his legacy – at worst they’ve openly embraced it. But few appear to have noticed just how damaging it has been to both the Conservative party and to the chance of getting the policies you desire into action.
Below, I set out three (interlinked) lessons that I have learnt about policy from a year in Westminster, which all owe much to the New Labour legacy.
1. There is too little ideology in politics, not too much
Conventional wisdom states that a party only wins elections from the centre ground. This dictated Blair’s whole strategy and could be easily argued to have characterised Cameron’s ‘decontamination’ programme. The pragmatic, as Lord Saatchi outlined as early as 2006, is to wear a sign saying ‘I am not an ideologue,’ as a badge of honour.
How did that work out for the Conservatives at the last election? The overwhelming message came back that the public didn’t trust any of the parties to govern.
The huge mistake that the Conservatives have made (and are still making) is to not recognise that Blair was effective because he defined the new centre ground – he didn’t move to it.
By going into the last election with no clear vision about how they wanted to shape the country, the Conservatives did not offer a meaningful alternative to the existing New Labour. Had the financial crash not occurred, there would have been even less to differentiate them. Let’s not forget that the Conservatives shamefully agreed to Gordon Brown’s spending plans right up to 2008 on the grounds of ‘pragmatism’.
By dealing with Burke’s ‘what is’ rather than ‘what should be,’ the Conservative party is now failing to change the terms of the political debate.
Take Europe. The leadership, until very recently, took the supposed centre ground of ‘offering support to our European partners.’ This was completely out of touch with public opinion, or the real centre ground, which is now firmly in the Eurosceptic camp.
There are numerous other examples, of which the whole cuts strategy is perhaps the clearest. Unwillingness to discuss the role of the state, through fear of being ‘ideological’, and eliminating programmes that shouldn’t even exist, the party has instead embarked on a salami-slicing cuts policy which upsets just about every interest group associated with the vast public sector. Sharing the pain in reality leads to special interest groups and pleading, making a multitude of enemies.
This unwillingness to define your beliefs accentuates public cynicism about politics – because pragmatism leads in turn to opportunism, flip-flopping and u-turns.
The success of Margaret Thatcher owed much to her clarity in her convictions. The centre ground shifted. By defining the debate in your terms, you offer the electorate a clear choice. This may be divisive. But it is also engaging.
In contrast, the share of the vote of the two major parties continues to decline the more they agree. Both major parties, even now, fail to offer a distinct vision for the future of Britain. But this is more problematic for the Conservatives, who as a result find themselves fighting the policy battles on New Labour’s terms.
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