What the Tories need to do for power
This article in the Guardian today really wound me up. The headline was "Labour contrasts family-friendly policies with Tory subsidies for private schooling". Let's get a few things straight. That is a lie. There is not "subsidies for private schooling". There is payment for education provision in the same way that state schools get paid. After the downright duplicitous and false "Tories want charges for the NHS" campaign (they don't) they are trying to paint Conservative education plans as an offensively elitist policy focussed only on the wealthy. Now, you may not like the plan, you may not think it will work well or improve schools. You might think it will be a disaster. Nevertheless Labour seems to be succeeding in painting it as motivated by the worst possible desires, as they have done with Conservative plans since '97.
This, then, is the real challenge for any election-winning Conservative party. They need education and health policies which they can and will defend as motivated for helping all, but, most importantly, for helping all achieve their potential. They need to have eloquent spokesmen in the key portfolios who can come out as soon as a smear attempt such as this is launched and deliver clear rhetoric about what they will actually do. Until that time then public perception of the party is going to, largely, remain as a group of self-interested, wealthy bastards. I just do not believe that is the case, but so long as Labour can marginalise the Conservatives as self-interested they won't be able to appeal sufficiently to the voters they need for power. The great question for me though is why they haven't been more assertive about this now? The policy isn't fantastic (as Blimpish said yesterday its features are great, but they need to sell on benefits) but can be framed in terms of clear benefits.
Quite simply, the education policy will tackle the current situation whereby good education is ensured by wealth more than anything else. If you can afford private school fees, you get a good education. If you can afford to move house to a good catchment area, you get a good education. If you can afford private tutoring from teachers who teach during the day at top or private schools then you get a good education. Who doesn't get a good education? Those bright children, those children with distinctive skills from poor backgrounds whose parents cannot afford private fees and who cannot afford to move house or to move away from their job. They are stuck in sink schools which are propped up. The Conservative plan would allow these children the opportunities which at the moment only money can buy - the opportunity to go to the best school possible. All children will have opportunities which at the moment are not open to the best, merely to the wealthy. That is an expansion of opportunity greater than anything Labour, who abolished the assisted place fund, has put on the table for education in eight whole years.
But do the country know this? Have the Conservatives advertised and pushed this? Here is their great failing. Yes, it would allow Labour to paint them as allowing rich people not to pay for private schooling, but Labour are doing this anyway. Isn't it madness to take the hits without punching back? Until the Tories can stand up and defend their policies in terms which all can surely, at least, find superficially attractive then they won't regain power. This is the change which must take place post-2005 for them to win. What it requires first, however, is that the party rediscovers its self-belief. I believe that is the one most important thing which the Howard campaign is achieving.