Damian Green is Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice and MP for Ashford.
I am tempted to use “Reasons to be Cheerful” as a working title today. Not just because we held Newark convincingly, and showed that morale is high enough at all levels of the party for Conservatives to show that we can out-campaign anyone when we need to. It is also because we can learn some useful lessons from the campaign.
One of the lessons from Newark is that the temptation to become UKIP-lite should be firmly resisted. Ed Miliband, our main opponent, would love the Conservative Party to move that way. The political battle of our times is between optimists and pessimists. Conservatives should be optimists, believing that free markets and a strong society are the basis for a successful country in the 21st century.
Nigel Farage hankers after the 1950s, when people knew their place. Ed Miliband, to be fair, is a slightly more modern figure. He prefers the 1970s, with mighty trade unions and high taxes. They are both relying on a sense of despair about Britain. They are wrong to despair about this country, which is great and getting better.
Beneath the surface of the Newark result other important lessons lie. A fascinating poll was taken by Survation in the days leading up to the vote, which showed a significant gender gap. In recent years the phrase “gender gap” has tended to be followed by figures showing that Conservatives are markedly less popular than previously among women. Not so this time. Conservatives and UKIP were neck and neck among male voters, with Labour well behind, but among women voters Conservatives were miles ahead (with Labour well behind again).
These figures are reinforced by anecdotal evidence from MPs who have spent more time in Newark recently than perhaps they anticipated. One has said that, for the first time in years, young women with push chairs were happy to stop and talk to someone wearing a blue rosette, and even to take balloons for the children. If this is a sign of a more general phenomenon, then something of huge significance is happening.
The Newark campaign was important not just for the energy displayed. It was run on the basis of a straightforward Conservative message. Trust us on the economy; we are the only party with a credible long-term plan, and you can see that it is beginning to work. And by the way, we have by far the most credible Prime Minister among all the party leaders. All the literature was in Tory blue, there was no attempt (as in Eastleigh) to put out tricky purple leaflets, and the whole party stuck to the message. What we showed was that even in a by-election where people traditionally take the chance to kick the Government of the day, this orthodox mainstream Tory message is the right one.
This has to show us the pattern for the coming year. A Conservative-led coalition Government has been in power for four years, so the fact that we can show palpable economic recovery has to be the most prominent feature in the political landscape. Of course European policy and immigration policy are important but we were elected to sort out the economy and we are doing so successfully, in a way that makes life easier for millions of people. Why would we not want to focus minds on this?
If this is the main short-term lesson from Newark there are long-term lessons as well. Moderate Conservatism can win us back the votes of the women who deserted us when Tony Blair was in full cry, and it can also do so for the other groups that will be necessary in the decades ahead to provide Conservative majority Governments.
This site has rightly spend much time discussing how we can build Conservatism among minority communities, and in parts of the country where the Conservative organisational presence is hanging on by a thread. The work that David Skelton has done with Renewal is hugely important in beginning the revival of urban Conservatism outside London. We will only make progress in areas previously resistant to Conservatives by demonstrating that the chance to get on in life, and to enjoy the fruits of prosperity, is available in the North, in inner cities, and among ethnic and religious minorities. By showing that Conservative reforms to education and welfare, and the Conservative desire to help people succeed in small businesses, are central to how we aim to spread success more widely, we can demonstrate that modern Conservatism really does encompass every part of society.
In the early days of the coalition, I warned that we should not sub-contract compassion to the Liberal Democrats, since the Conservative message should always be hard-headed but not hard-hearted. It is heartening to observe that, for example, the moral purpose behind the welfare reforms has been widely accepted, especially among young people, so that attempts by the left to portray it as cruel Tory cutting have largely failed. But we need to be vigilant that we do not sound carelessly indifferent to the particular concerns of those who want to be part of a successful Britain, but who are not sure they will make it.
Though there are indeed reasons to be cheerful, there are absolutely no reasons to think that we are heading inexorably for the sunlit uplands. Both in the short and long term, either side of May 2015, there is work to do to convince a largely disengaged public that we have the answers and that we are on their side. We have shown, and perhaps learned ourselves, in the past few weeks that with the right emphasis and tone backing up Government policies, we can win. That in itself is a significant step forward.
This article is an edited version of the author’s speech yesterday to a Tory Reform Group conference.