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Weekly letter


Greg ClarkGreg Clark is Financial Secretary to the
Treasury and MP for Tunbridge Wells. Most Tuesdays he will be writing this new
'Letter from a Treasury Minister' for ConservativeHome readers. Follow
 Greg
on Twitter
.

Politics
is polar – left versus right; liberal versus authoritarian; europhile versus
eurosceptic. But out in the real world, and to the frequent bewilderment of the
political class, most people decline to conform to the archetypes that others
invent for them.

Take
the debate over welfare reform, in which, supposedly, the country is polarised
between the ‘shirkers’ and the ‘strivers’.

Earlier
this month, Labour’s Liam Byrne told the House of Commons that the debate
should not be reduced to a “basic division between Britain’s shirkers and
strivers.” However, few have done more than Mr Byrne has to introduce the word
‘shirker’ to the political lexicon, for instance in a speech to the LSE last year or in his 2011 speech to the Labour
conference
.

Leaving
Labour hypocrisy to one side, we need to be aware that worklessness is a
complex problem. No doubt there are those who do choose benefits over work.
But, as Iain Duncan Smith has shown, welfare dependency is characterised, for
the most part, by a tangle of root causes, each of which needs to be unpicked –
for instance, by making work pay, improving literacy and dealing with the
impact of social breakdown.

If
talk about ‘shirkers’ is too simplistic, then what about the ‘strivers’ who are
the heroes, not the zeroes, of the tale?

There’s
certainly nothing wrong with being a striver. In fact, strivers deserve our
highest admiration and support. People who are determined to work exceptionally
hard to improve their situation, to push themselves constantly for as long as
it takes, are the drivers of economic and social progress. These are the people
who start up companies; who lead their communities; who “fill”, as Rudyard Kipling had it, “the unforgiving minute with sixty
seconds worth of distance run.” Our party, in particular, should be the one
that celebrates their achievements and makes it possible for them to achieve even
more.

But – whisper
it quietly – not everyone is, nor wants to be, a striver. What many people want
from life is not a relentless struggle for advancement, but a reasonable
working day, in which they can do a good job, but still have time for friends
and family.

Not
being a striver doesn’t make you a shirker – it’s simply a matter of working to
live, not living to work.

Last
year, Policy Exchange published Northern
Lights
, a landmark report into how
parties can connect with voters beyond their core support. As part of the
YouGov polling undertaken for the project, people were asked to give their
verdict on the labels that politicians use to describe the general public. Table
17 on page 44 gives the results:

Table

As you
can see from the figures not many people identify strongly with the striver
label.  They’re even less likely to see
themselves as ‘aspirational’ or ‘upwardly mobile’. The most popular description
by far is ‘ordinary working people, trying to get on in life.’

What
this shows is that most people identify with plain language and modest
ambitions. For the mainstream majority, ‘ordinary’ is not a dirty word.

What does this mean for Conservatives?
A great deal. 

We must be the party of ordinary
working people. The party of people who want a decent job to support themselves
and their families; the security of a home of their own where they can be
stable and settled; reliable back-up from well-run, caring public services; and
enough money left in their pay packets to afford a car, a holiday, savings for
a rainy day and a reasonable pension in retirement.

These are not the demands of those who
think the world owes them a living. It is an attitude to life distinguished by
quiet responsibility, mutual reliance and family loyalties. That which is asked of government is to all it can
to provide a shield from risk and turbulence – instead of adding to life’s
uncertainties. 

As a party we must show that we
understand these instincts just as much as those of the strivers. After all, these
are values that can be justly, and approvingly, described as conservative.

I believe that, in this respect, we
have a powerful story to tell.

The actions we are pursuing in government
– whether paying down the deficit; keeping interest rates on mortgages low;
safeguarding spending on the NHS; replacing failing schools with well-run
academies; freezing council tax and cutting fuel duty – accord with what we owe
to the ordinary working people of this country.

While other parties stand for
recklessness in economic policy and irresponsibility in social policy, the
Conservative Party must always do what it says on the tin.

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