Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): My leadership dilemma

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

My leadership dilemma

Why is being seen as a modern political party incompatible with holding Tory values? Shouldn't it be possible to defend what we have always believed in, but to do so in a way which strikes a chord with a wider audience than that we've attracted recently? Isn't it just a question of framing our policy motivations in a more attractive way? The now Sir John Major wrote stonking piece for today's Telegraph which I thought I would proffer a hat-tip. Almost without exception every sentence he wrote summed up the challenges facing the party and, for me at least, had particular resonance.

For the Conservatives, the penny seems to have dropped: negativity is out; aping the artificiality of New Labour is old hat; and - from the Right and Left of the party - a welcome debate on policy has opened up.

We do not have to reinvent the policy wheel. Yes, we need to adapt, but no, we do not - should not - disparage all we stood for and achieved. In 1979-90 the Conservative Party in government built a market economy out of the rubble left by Labour: our election victory of 1992 entrenched those reforms, adding low inflation and healthy growth to them. The spectre of ever-rising prices that had wrecked our economy time and time again, over the previous 40 years, was tamed.

This was a very painful exercise for our party, but right for the country. These virtuous economic developments left casualties in their wake and it would be wise for the Conservatives to revisit the effects of some of them. In the 1980s, the profligacy of Left-wing local authorities damaged the macro economy: to protect it we rate-capped councils, abolished the GLC, introduced the poll tax, and widened controls over local authorities.

Today, there is no such extremism in local government: we must acknowledge this and rebuild local democracy. Similarly, in our ambition to simplify a horrendously complex tax system, we withdrew tax benefits to families and to marriage. We should revisit this: it was, I believe now, a mistake.

We have to mould the values which in the past allowed us to craft policies which were just what was needed at that time to help us craft policies for today. To do this, however, does not require that we bleat mea culpas repeatedly about Margaret Thatcher. Let's say we stand by decisions made for a different time and look to today and the future.

But individual policies are only part of the patchwork. The key question remains: what is the thrust - the underpinning philosophy - of 21st-century Conservatism to be? In the early 1990s I advocated a "nation at ease with itself". Events, and the time and energy expended on internal disputes, prevented my aspiration becoming reality, but the instinct to ease divisions in our society is at least as valid now as it was then - possibly even more so.

Nor can we afford the indulgence of intra-party disputes. Even our most faithful supporters are despairing of these. It was a black day when labels such as "wet" or "dry" or "Euro-sceptics" or "Euro-enthusiasts" first came into use. Such terms were intended to denigrate, but soon came to be worn as a factional badge of pride. They did nothing but divide the Conservative Party. The "modernisers" and the "traditionalists" of today's debate should not allow this past error to be repeated.

Here I too strenuously agree. Too much debate today takes place not in a meaningful way, but in a seeming battle of opaque tags. Human rights, the environment, sustainability and many others are used as apparently unchallengeable shields by their standard bearers as a means of avoiding real debate. Their mere use tries to negate any meaningful questions about what agenda is actually being pursued beneath the smokescreen they create. Conservatives ought to be tackling the use of such tags and the dumbing down they add to instead of indulging ourselves in the same process. This is why I take issue with the only part of Sir John's piece I would question. That is his proclamation that "the centre ground" is the key.

Directing every policy to that purpose is right in principle, should make our strategy coherent, and is a Right-of-Centre approach around which all Conservatives can coalesce. I say "Right of Centre" advisedly: it is a simple truth that no party can win an election without the support of much of the centre ground.

The facile argument that we moved to the Right in the 1980s and won elections with ease no longer convinces: in those days, Labour were wholly un-electable, whereas today they occupy (albeit unconvincingly) much of the traditional Tory ground. We must reclaim support from the centre to win. It's tough, I know, for the ideological Right of the party to accept, but the road they wish to follow leads only to perpetual opposition.

Although I am not instinctively and necessarily entirely happy with where it comes from the Telegraph leader correctly challenges this:

The policies we have endorsed here - tax relief, small government, support for marriage, Euroscepticism - can easily be portrayed as an old-fashioned, backward-looking agenda. This is because they are integral to Tory philosophy; they are not to be forsaken because they are old. It is the responsibility of the new leader to refashion these timeless principles to suit the demands of the day. That - not a hopeless search for an illusory "centre ground" - should be the road ahead.

Too many of those known as "modernisers" seem to believe that we have to abandon everything the party has ever believed in to seem like we're at the centre; a "Blue Labour" thinking. Too many of those on the right of the right, who I will characterise as "Davis backers" seem to think we need a more vigorous and forthright defence of our traditional policies by the right person ie. David Davis. My concern is that they both miss the point, or rather they both get part of it.

Yes, the centre is a mythical place and, yes, the best politicians bring what is called the centre to them rather than trying to chase it. Equally, however, there is some validity in thinking the public perceive a journey to better represent them and their views; this could be seen as a journey towards the public and to embodying their hopes, aspirations and fears. The Party undeniably has to do this, but the sad fact is both of the developing factions, as far as I can tell, are missing how it can be done. It's done by publicly beating yourself up and wearing a pink open-necked shirt as you defend Labour-lite policies. Equally it's not done by keeping down the same-old path but with slightly more obviously Tory policies. The only way to do it is to defend policies motivated by traditional Conservative values, but to frame the way we justify them and why we desire them in a way with which more of the country can empathise.

People see the party as self-interested and a little creepy. That has to change if people are to listen to us, just see the poll about support for our immigration policy during the election which showed fewer people backed it when they were expressly told it was our's. It won't change by denying who and what we are, though. Neither will it change just by being a little harder about it all. We have to justify our principles and even our existing policies, in a way which suggests we are not only motivated by self-interest. Jane'>">Jane Nuffin touches on a similar point, in an interesting article at Conservativehome, talking about an electoral centre and a political centre. A party can have popular policies (the electoral centre) but the electorate fails to believe the party is in the political centre (of moderation). Surely this is the Conservative problem right now? She goes on to enunciate my response to the Major article and the current "discussion" about the new leader. The arguments of modernisers and traditionalists and their associated factions talk past each other. The party is at the heart of the electorate in many policy areas, but is not seen as being at the country's political centre or wanting to tackle the country's problems. This puts off potential voters.

What some talk of as the political centre is not just an issue of policy but of rhetoric, innovation, framing and leadership. A new leader must be seen to embody moderation while remaining astute to the traditional right-leaning electoral centre of public opinion. Nuffin says, the answer is not to either remain faithful to traditional Conservatism or be seen to modernise, but to do both. If by modernising she means being seen to share modern aspirations and concerns she is right.

Isn't this what Sir John was saying, you might ask? I actually think it probably was, which was why I saw so much sense in it. Sadly, however, it seems he wanted to use his piece to marginalise David Davis, who he seems to have decided against.

My vote, if I have one, is up for grabs. The problem is neither Davis nor Cameron seems to enunciate that we don't have to choose between being proud of Tory values and communicating to the public that we're in touch with Britain. With the right leader we ought to be able to do both. Believing in a small state which trusts individuals and families to take responsibility for society is not and need not be incompatible with showing we're not crooked second-hand car dealers. My leadership dilemma is deciding which candidate is best-placed to do both. My big concern, from what I've seen so far, is that neither will come close.


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