During the last few weeks, it has been commonplace to hear the claim that the Conservative election campaign is dull, flat and mechanistic – and that it needs a sense of “change, optimism and hope”, to borrow a phrase from David Cameron’s early days as Tory leader. Rachel Sylvester’s article in today’s Times offers a useful guide to this way of thinking.
Change, optimism and hope are indeed a better basis for a modern political party than paralysis, pessimism and despair, but I don’t think that this criticism gets to the heart of the matter. Strong leadership, the long-term economic plan, a more secure future, supporting people who work hard and play by the rules – all these features of the Cameron/Osborne/Crosby plan are sound ones.
What is missing from it is not so much a sense of sunshine winning the day as something even more primal. You may agree or disagree with Ed Miliband’s attack last week on non-doms but, like his regular assaults on bankers, energy and railway company directors, hedge funds and employers who use zero hour contracts, it told us what he is for.
He is for making Britain a more left-wing country (not a novel aim for the leader of the Labour Party). But what is David Cameron for? Perhaps the fairest answer is to run Britain well – in the manner traditionally done by the best members of the country’s professional political class. It is all done with a Conservative bias and with a modern flavour. And, in our view, much of it has been done well.
In a more deferential and settled age, when political parties had millions of members, deep roots in the communities they served, and had a hold on the national imagination, this would have been enough for more than enough voters in more than enough elections to make the Tories the natural party of government.
However, the Party has not won an election outright in over 20 years, and this one is likely to be no different – though Cameron certainly has a fighting chance of getting back to Downing Street. And the factors that are holding it back are not merely the drift of left-wing Liberal Democrats to Labour, UKIP taking Conservative support, Tory problems with ethnic minority voters, or even the vote distribution.
Liam Fox argued incisively last weekend that the Conservatives need more in this campaign than a what (such as providing security) or even a how (such as a revived right to buy, a feature of today’s manifesto launch). They need a why. In an age in which the political system is under strain, the parties are hollowed out and the Great Recession has bitten hard, business as usual is not enough.
At its heart, the Conservatives must communicate a sense that they are in it for other people than themselves – for the whole country in which they are still the most longest-lasting political party in the world. This is hard for a party which is seen by too many voters as the Party of the Rich – a problem in the best of times, let alone in these recession-scarred ones.
This claim is a fundamental misreading of the record. It was the Tories who helped extend the franchise in the nineteenth century, who gave women the vote in the last one, who built houses for the people under Macmillan, who gave poorer people the chance to buy them under Thatcher, and whose traditional task is to restore prosperity after Labour messes everything up.
It is also deeply unfair – unfair on the activists, councillors and MPs who joined the Party precisely because they want to serve other people, and do so not only through politics but in the voluntary and charitable work that so many members undertake. Indeed, the irony is that it is Labour which is today’s real establishment party: it has the Martin Freeman factor – in other words, strong cultural dominance.
In the details of today’s manifesto (the new right-to-buy plans, proposals to take more people out of tax, and the surprises that will doubtless be unveiled later) is a powerful counter-message: that it is the Conservative way which offers real power to the people, through values of hard work, self-reliance, social responsibility, and a deep understanding of the British way of life.
One of Cameron’s predecessors as party leader was a Jewish outsider in an age in which people of his ethnicity in politics were very rare. Another was a woman at a time when the hold of men on Parliament was far stronger than it is today. In their different ways, both stood for change – for the better, for others, for the country. Their successor must do so, too, during this campaign and after.