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SHAKESPEARE Stephan headshot
Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov
There is an old joke about the definition of a Conservative – someone who says that government doesn’t work, then gets elected… and proves it. The joke is based on a fundamental truth: that conservatives tend to be deeply suspicious about the government machine and prefer dismantling it to reforming it.
I think this is a big mistake: in spite of the fondest hopes of libertarians, there is little chance that the proportion of GDP taken and controlled by the state will significantly reduce in the foreseeable future; people will not vote for it. In that case, not having a theory of government, not being interested in the processes of taking and re-allocating resources, making the rules, measuring outcomes and adapting policy, is crazy: government will not go away. A party that wants to be elected needs a clear idea of what government is for and how to make it work.
It’s been a long time since top-tier politicians have been comfortable talking explicitly about the purpose and process of government, understandably perhaps because they think government is unpopular. But government is not unpopular, politicians are unpopular.
There’s been a lot if talk lately about how ‘Generation Y’ (the youngest cohort of voters) is composed of mini-Adam-Smiths. I wish; but all YouGov’s considerable research to understand this group brings us to a different, more nuanced view: yes, younger voters are harder-edged – unsympathetic to welfare, they believe in hard work and ambition – but they also believe that government has a big, positive role to play in their lives: 2-1 say it is a ‘force for good’.
Tim Montgomerie, writing in The Times on Monday, referred to YouGov data showing that across Europe people think government spends money inefficiently, data which also suggested that people in France, Sweden, Germany and Britain had lost faith particularly in parties of the left to deliver on their promises; and concluded “seventeen years after Bill Clinton declared that ‘the era of big government is over’, now it really is”.
Tim warned that “for the Right there is a danger of overreacting and becoming economically libertarian”. Quoting the Times/YouGov poll, he acknowledged “Even the most liberal of generations — today’s 18 to 24-year-olds — see merit in government; 58 per cent of Britain’s so-called Generation Y think government helps to create a good life for people. Only 12 per cent disagree. The Right will only dominate the new era if it is comfortable with using the State to provide basic social services and a safety net for all.”
For the Left he advocates getting a better theory of government, but for the Right he wants “a winning recipe of free market economics with a bias towards using all available proceeds of growth to cut taxes on the low-paid and build homes for families that wouldn’t otherwise get on the property ladder.” Yes to all that, but it’s not enough; Conservatives need to go further and show they can make government work better for everyone, not just as a last-ditch provider of minimalist basic services.
Ed Miliband scored his first significant hit two weeks ago at the Labour Party conference, with his energy price-capping policy, an explicitly interventionist plan for government. For the first time, Miliband seemed purposeful and in tune with the voters. The Conservatives responded plaintively, “that’s not how markets work.” True, of course, it’s a terrible idea. But then explain: how exactly can government stand up for the consumer in an imperfect market? Why should we be paying more for our utilities than, say, American consumers? Americans pay only 60 per cent what we do for our electricity. Do Conservatives have an idea about how to change that?
Mere non-intervention isn’t the whole basis of other successful forms of capitalism. Even under Reagan, America made big bets that investment would eventually be well commercialised: the world-dominating success of Silicon Valley, with virtually every major piece of the Internet infrastructure headquartered there, did not come about merely through entrepreneurial geeks, availability of risk capital, and geography – a fourth vital factor was really huge and sustained government funding of basic science, the kind that commercial companies rarely do.
Voters are not looking for philosophies or economic theories, but they surely won’t give majorities to people who do not show they know how to make government work on their behalf.

27 comments for: Stephan Shakespeare: To win, Conservatives must focus on improving government – not just downsizing it

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