Stephen Tall is Co-Editor, Liberal Democrat Voice. Follow Stephen on Twitter.
"What would I do if I were in your shoes?" That was the question I suggested to ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie we might each answer on behalf of our respective parties – he on LibDemVoice – and me here: the idea being to champion the policies we think our Coalition partner is mad not to run with and make their own.
Dear reader, you might very well question my credentials to proffer such unsolicited advice. After all, I’m a signed-up Lib Dem who doesn’t want to offer succour to the Conservative party. Moreover, I represent a party which isn’t – how can I put this charitably? – riding high in the polls just now.
Why don’t people like me vote Conservative?
I hope, though, that you’ll give what follows a hearing, both because I’m a liberal first and a LibDem second, but more advantageously from your perspective because I think the Conservatives are missing a trick in appealing to a tranche of voters you will need to build a majority.
Some of those voters are people quite a lot like me. (Not actually me, I hasten to add: my Lib Dem roots are far too deep.) I self-identify as both an economic and social liberal – but if we were States-side I would just as happily self-identify as a fiscal conservative and social liberal.
I dislike big government, and support a low-tax, free enterprise economy. I believe competition is a key driver of public service reform, and am relaxed about private sector involvement in the delivery of health and education so long as the principle of "free to all at the point of use" prevails. And I think the state has no business intruding into our private lives, whether to keep tabs on citizens or to legislate against our lifestyle choices.
I should be the sort of voter a modern Conservative Party would want to appeal to. And yet to me, and to many who share the same principles, the idea of voting for the Tories is completely off-limits. Why?
What the Conservatives should re-learn from Margaret Thatcher
Over the past couple of weeks, Tim Montgomerie has published a tactically shrewd list of proposals designed to ensure the Conservative Party secures a parliamentary majority at the next election, enabling it to govern alone without the encumbrance of the Lib Dems. But it’s in the nature of such lists that too often they lack a narrative coherence, and I fear Tim’s ideas suffer for the absence of an overarching mission.
Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms of power suffered no such fuzziness of purpose. Her vision was very clear: to demonstrate to ordinary voters that she was on their side. She gave them the chance to own the council houses they lived in. They were able to buy shares in previously state-owned monopolies. She cut their taxes. The grocer’s daughter understood that Britain remains, in many ways, a nation of shopkeepers. To borrow a phrase, she governed for the many not the few.
I say this not to venerate Mrs Thatcher – she was by no means a liberal, for example centralising power within Whitehall to a quite unprecedented degree – but to highlight the major failing of the Conservative Party under David Cameron: to persuade most voters that the Conservatives will serve the interests of the aspirant want-to-haves, and not merely favour its core group of prosperous already-haves.
David Cameron’s failure
Strong leaders who want to build majorities move their parties beyond their existing comfort zones. Mr Cameron began his leadership by doing exactly that – his "hug-a-huskie" phase – in the process building a comfortable lead over Labour.
Then came the financial crash, and suddenly the Conservatives no longer seemed to have many convincing answers. Shaken, the party retreated to what it knows best, the class it knows best: the comfortably off. Its taxation debates became obsessed with the 50p top-rate of income tax for those earning more than £150,000, and curbing inheritance tax for estates up to £1m. As a result, the party lost sight of the constituency Margaret Thatcher understood best: the people who weren’t there, yet.
Two policies the Conservatives should adopt
Is there a way in which the Conservatives can regain their focus on the majority? Here are two concrete proposals I think would help.
First, the Conservatives’ tax policies should be re-orientated to help the poorest most. It is baffling (albeit a relief) to me that David Cameron and George Osborne have not even tried to identify themselves with the Lib Dem-sponsored Coalition policy of increasing the income tax threshold to benefit the low-paid. Instead, the Conservatives remain myopically fixated solely on the 50p top-rate, and on fighting measures to tax unearned wealth. Smart Tories would look at Margaret Thatcher’s example, and recognise that you build a majority by ensuring all voters benefit. And they would then read Adam Smith and realise that wealth taxes make both economic and social sense.
Second, the Conservatives need actively to promote policies which favour meritocracy – that the best can make it through their own efforts, not because of who they know – a value not currently associated with Mr Cameron's party. For sheer shock value, the Conservative leadership could do worse than re-assert its manifesto pledge to support an elected House of Lords, a Clause IV moment that would help the electorate to take seriously the party's claim to represent more than just its own vested interests. Reform of the upper house is not in itself a big issue (nor, for that matter, was Clause IV), but it would be a deeply symbolic gesture that shows Conservatives opposing the ‘old boy’s network’ of patronage. It’s the kind of policy which would surprise voters, and in particular the floating ‘Lib Dem / Conservative’ voters the party will need to win back at the next election in key marginal seats. Perhaps the best way to think of it is as the equivalent of the party’s pledge to ring-fence international aid at the last election. Again, this was not an obvious priority to most voters – nor was it especially popular among the party’s membership – yet that was precisely its power.
I find myself conflicted at the end of this article. On the one hand, I would support a government (of whichever hue) that adopted such policies, prioritising tax-breaks for the low-paid, and promoting a more meritocratic society. On the other hand I cannot but half-hope the Conservatives continue to close their minds to how they can appeal to voters like me – because by doing so you’re helping make the job of we Liberal Democrats so much easier!