It’s been another bad week for Tory modernisation (or at least the model of Tory modernisation that Team Cameron has pursued since 2005). By cracking down on immigration and by appearing to retreat from unilateral action on climate change the prime minister has appeared to jettison those early promises to be a different kind of Conservative. Uber-modernising Tory MPs have met David Cameron to express their concerns. Matthew Parris has warned the PM that he’ll lose the next election if he continues to give the impression that he’s a “hater”. I listed some of the ways in which Cameron has U-turned on his failed reshaping of conservatism.
Opponents of uber-modernisation on the Tory Right have cause to feel vindicated. They never believed in Cameron’s diagnosis of the Tory problem and they were and are right that the Tory leadership’s pursuit of Guardian readers (which was what it essentially was) was fatally flawed. They’d be wrong, however, to assume that the failure of uber-modernisation – or, as he called it liberal conservatism – means that Tories should go back to old, comfortable and losing positions. The uber-modernisers were right to recognise that the Conservative Party had to change.
Two facts should be enough: (1) The Tories, after dominating 20th century British politics haven’t won a general election outright since 1992; and (2) The Republicans, after a long period dominating US presidential elections, have only won more than 50% of the national vote in one of the last six contests to choose America’s Commander-in-chief. Something is clearly wrong on the post-Cold War centre right that can’t be pinned on individual Tory or GOP leaders.
In deciding how the Conservative Party should address this problem I invite you to come to the Wilberforce Address on 17th December when I’ll be addressing the subject at length – but, for the moment, let’s turn to public opinion for some answers.
Earlier this week, in a YouGov poll for The Times that built on an earlier YouGov poll for ConHome, voters were asked to list three things they liked least about the Conservative Party.
Some of the biggest obsessions of the uber-modernisers hardly registered at all. Only 1% said it was the Tory attitude to gay people. Only 1% said it was that Tories don’t care about women. Only 1% said it was a lack of concern for ethnic minorities.
The poll also found that voters didn’t object to what the media think of as right-wing policies. Just 1% thought Tories had extreme views on crime. Only 3% worried about “extreme views on immigration” (80%+ approve of Cameron’s measures of the last week). The one ‘right-wing’ view that did slightly register was “going on too much about Europe”. 12% identified that.
Overall, however – echoing that earlier ConHome poll – what worries voters about the Tories is a lack of social solidarity. The Tory problem is not that it is too right-wing (on issues like crime, immigration and welfare) but that it lacks a commitment to social justice. 20% of those polled by YouGov worried that the Tories are a party of the South that doesn’t care enough about the North. 25% say Conservatives don’t care enough about the NHS and other public services. 30% say Conservatives don’t care enough about the poor and vulnerable. Top of The Times/YouGov poll, at 37%, was “they are the party of the rich”.
The Tory leadership have rightly abandoned uber-modernisation because it failed to address the core Tory problem. But modernisation is still necessary. There can be no retreat to a comfort zone.
Few Tory MPs have a better understanding of what is required than Robert Halfon. To deserve to win again Conservatives should be about protecting core public services; focusing tax relief on the low-paid; tackling housing costs (and overcoming NIMBYism); an English parliament meeting in a Northern city; all-regional shortlists for out-of-the-south constituencies (no southerners in northern marginals or safe seats); replacement of the Barnett formula with a social justice fund; delivery of Ken Baker’s vision for technical education and so on.
In other words: uber-modernisation is dead, long live compassionate modernisation.