Robert Halfon is a member of the 1922 Committee Executive and MP for Harlow.
One of the once-famous anti-Soviet parables went like this: The train of communism is going up a hill and suddenly stops, as there is an engine failure. Stalin says: ‘”shoot the driver, and then the passengers,” Kruschev says; “Let’s rehabilitate the driver, but shoot the passengers”; Brezhnev says “Let’s pull down the blinds”, and finally Gorbachev says: “in the name of Glasnost, let the passengers stand around the train, shouting, the train isn’t working, the train isn’t working”.
I thought of this story when considering the recent European and local elections. What would happen if the train broke down in Britain? Labour would say: “Let’s tax the passengers in first class so we can spend more on the engine’; from Liberals, it would be “Split the train in half and have two engines'”; from UKIP: “if only the train had been built by Bombardier, not these cheap overseas Labourers” and, from the Conservatives, most probably: “Privatise the train”.
Of all these messages, which are the most appealing? Labour’s deals – at least superficially – with the anger of the bulk of the second class passengers, with its version of social justice (albeit ensuring that the first class passengers are likely to find other means of transport as a result). UKIP’s solution, too, would have a powerful message of patriotism, appealing to high and low income passengers alike.
By contrast the message of privatisation not only is hard to explain, but for one reason or another, resonates as a cross between technocracy and fear. Whereas the Labour message makes the majority of people on the train happy in the immediate future, the Tory one points towards a future that is sustainable – even if it might cause pain in the short term.
This need not be the case. Every clothes peg needs a washing line. That means having a moral mission which gives a Conservative framework to our policies, and is as powerful as Labour’s main objective to help the underdog.
If Labour’s mission is about fighting poverty, ours is about aspiration. We are the party of the ladder. If you are poor, Conservatives can provide ladders out of benefits and into work; if you are in work, Conservatives will cut taxes; if you want to own your home, Conservatives will provide a ladder for right to buy, or help to buy, and if you want to choose the best school and hospital to suit you or your family, Conservatism will make sure you have that opportunity.
But just to say you are the party of aspiration – and even have the right policies – is not enough. We also have to be counter-intuitive. That means saying and doing things which the public don’t expect us to do, that are still conservative in philosophy, but make the public sit up and take notice.
That is why the Party of Aspiration can also be the party of redistribution, social justice and trade unionism. None of this is a contradiction in terms. For example, consider redistribution. Why not redistribute the extra revenues gained from cutting the taxes of the rich (an extra £9 billion raised) into a special fund for cutting taxes to lower earners – whether it be raising the threshold in which people pay national insurance and income tax, or re-introducing a new 10p tax rate. On social justice, let us say we support the Living Wage, but argue that its achievement is made possible by tax cuts for lower earners, not by burdening business.
A counter-intuitive aspirational conservatism would not be afraid to support trade unionism, either – recognising that under Mrs Thatcher there were 170 Conservative Trade Union branches around the country, and that a third of trade union members vote conservative. There are more trade union members who have private health insurance provided by their own union than go on strike. It is not un-Conservative to support trade unionism, whatever our battles against some militant trade union leaders. Our own party should offer similar services to members, such as a fuel card and cheaper insurance schemes for example.
Aspiration and counter-intuitiveness need a third element too: authenticity. A moral message, which is noticed, has to be believed. Of all the three parts, this is the hardest to achieve. Part of it comes with policy results, part with political passion and narrative. But we can make a start: big party figures holding public meetings, UKIP style, without the stage management or spin doctoring that is so much a part of government. Genuinely listening to Britain’s conversation and convincing the public that we are doing so.
To misquote Golda Meir, pessimism is not a luxury that any Conservative can allow himself. We can get the train up the hill, without going on about cuts, or even shooting the drivers. But only if we have a moral steer that gives our party a full head of steam.