Ben was the Conservative Party Candidate in the City of
Durham in the 2005 General Election. He is a
writer and international human rights activist. He is the co-author of
a foreign policy paper, New Ground: Engaging People with the
Conservative Party through a bold, principled and imaginative foreign
policy, available online at www.newground.org.uk. If you would like to contribute a post for Platform – perhaps advocating your ideal Tory leadership candidate – please email your suggestion to email@example.com.
The Conservative Party needs to change – wholesale. Its culture, attitudes, tone, language, perceptions, image, brand and reputation. It needs to stop reliving the past and start looking to the future. It needs to combine vision and idealism with real solutions that will make a real difference to people’s lives. It needs to be generous and positive in tone and spirit. It needs to have a message that uplifts and excites. We need to work for the day when to be Conservative and to be compassionate are perceived by the public not as two contradictory mindsets, but as one entirely natural political identity. And we need to find a leader who can do this.
I stood as the Conservative candidate in the City of Durham in the General Election. I am a human rights activist, and during the campaign I talked about injustice, oppression, poverty. I highlighted trade justice. I called for a foreign policy that promoted democracy and freedom. My themes were “life, liberty, justice and responsibility”.
Not a day went by without someone telling me I was in the wrong party. People told me they really liked what I was saying, they wanted to vote for me, but they could not bring themselves to vote for my party. A handful of lifelong Labour supporters did switch, but even when they did they made it clear what they thought of my party. Most could not fathom the idea that I was a Conservative. I could almost see the sparks bouncing off people’s brains as they were short-circuited by my stories of times spent with refugees, torture victims and dissidents in countries like Burma, East Timor, Pakistan and China. The astonished whisper – “He’s a Conservative?” – was audible.
It wasn’t just my views on international issues that confused people. I was the only candidate from Durham City to take part in a discussion with the homeless in Newcastle. The look of surprise on the street-sleepers’ faces – “the Tory showed up, and Labour and the Lib Dems didn’t” – was incredible. I went round bars and pubs with students, and just chatted to them over a pint – “you’re the Tory candidate?”, they asked incredulously.
I don’t want this to happen again. At the next General Election, I don’t want voters to be surprised that I am a Tory. I don’t want to be seen by voters as an oddity – a rare “Tory who cares”. I want it to seem natural to everyone, as it does to me, that I should be a Tory and a human rights activist. I want voters to know instinctively that the Conservative Party is for them, that we have a positive vision for how to make our country and our world better, that we can offer hope. I want people to know that Conservatives champion the under-privileged, the oppressed, the disadvantaged. But for that to happen, the party needs to change.
Most of the leadership candidates say this, in one form or another. But which of them truly believes it? Which of them knows in their heart what needs to be done? And which of them has the energy, enthusiasm, vision, intelligence and character to do it? Having watched the various candidates over recent weeks, I have to conclude that the only one who shows all these characteristics with any depth is David Cameron.
“Britain aches for new hope, fresh ideas and reform with results,” are the words with which Cameron begins his leadership manifesto. The party “must look, feel, think and behave like a completely new organization,” he continues. We need to develop “a shared responsibility,” a belief that “we’re all in this together”, a realization that “there’s a ‘we’ in our politics as well as a ‘me’”. This is language I have not heard from his rivals. And on international issues, he said, Britain is at its best when it “engages ethically and enthusiastically with the wider world”. That means “when the Conservative Party talks about foreign affairs it can’t just be Gibraltar and Zimbabwe. We have got to show as much passion about Darfur and the millions of people living on less than a dollar a day in sub-Saharan African who are getting poorer while we are getting richer.” Music to my ears.
Speaking entirely without notes, Cameron offered something I haven’t heard from the other contenders. Hope. Vision. Inspiration. He represents the future, not the past. And more than that, he indicates a new style of politics. The days of negative campaigning should be put behind us, he said. The party should not go into election campaigns simply sniping at its opponents. When Labour does something right, we should support it. On global warming, for example, the problem is of such importance that the parties should work together in an independent commission to find solutions. That is a style of politics that will re-engage people.
Some may say that Cameron will throw out the baby with the bathwater, that he will abandon our core values. But that is nonsense. The values that make us Conservatives – of freedom, limited government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, the family and national sovereignty – will not change, and no one is proposing that they should. They are the values I am passionate about. They are the values that define us as Conservatives. But Cameron argues, and he is right, that on their own these values are not enough. People do not realize that they are our shared values – or else they don’t see how those values are translated into results for them. We need to communicate and apply our values in ways that people will respond to. They need to be “recast according to the spirit of the age and the challenges of our times”. Personal responsibility, for example, “must not mean selfish individualism”. National sovereignty should not imply “isolation and xenophobia”. Limited government must never mean that “the weak are left behind”.
Cameron’s two weaknesses, according to his critics, are that he is an old-Etonian toff and is too young. But these criticisms in themselves are shallow. As he has said, what matters is not where you come from, but where you are going to. And age is irrelevant if the alternative is someone much older and more experienced but lacking the will to change. It is also worth remembering that Cameron will be 42 by the time of the next election – not much younger than Tony Blair when he became Prime Minister. John F Kennedy was 43 when he became US President in 1960.
David Davis’ slogan is “modern Conservatism” and Ken Clarke’s is “Time to Win”. Both of them talk about change, but their true belief in its importance is reflected by the word’s absence from their slogans. Only Cameron, with “Change to Win”, is a true believer. With his rigour, vigour, enthusiasm, charm, intelligence and humanity – if anyone can take the party through the radical change it needs, it is David Cameron.