Nicholas Boys Smith is a former parliamentary candidate and has served as a front bench adviser in Government and in Opposition. This is an excerpt from ‘True Blue: How Fair Conservatism can win the next election’, published by Demos on Monday. Details of the events launch can be read here.
I have spent part of this autumn travelling around Britain. It has made me angry. From Kensington in Liverpool to Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh Valleys, one point has been painfully and consistently apparent to me. Britain is more divided and less equal now than it has been for nearly a century.
Why is this? It is certainly not because we have been badly governed for most of the last 25 years. Quite the reverse. Almost everyone now accepts that the heady days of the union-vanquishing, privatising, free-marketeering Margaret Thatcher governments effected a British renaissance.
Rather, the 1980s Conservative Ministries did not do enough. They liberated the market but they did not give enough Britons the tools to compete. They freed the banks and the builders, but they did not liberate the people from a cloying, maliciously-coddling welfare system. They did not set the people free from a glut of enterprise-stifling local councils and poor public services. They did not take on the dangerous politically correct mantras that marriage and a ‘proper education’ were mere Victorian vestiges. Above all, they did not liberate the poor from outrageously high levels of personal taxation.
Part of Britain was ‘Thatcherised.’ It is now rich and becoming richer. Part of Britain was not. It is not rich and not getting richer.
Most of Britain knows their fellow citizens are living in poverty. 55 percent believe there is “real poverty” in Britain. Voters care, too. 59 percent are proud of the welfare state. There is, rightly, much scepticism about how the current welfare system works. All the same 59 percent oppose simple benefit cuts for the very good reason that they will “damage too many peoples’ lives”.
The desire to help the less well off may not always top the polls of how people say they are going to vote but it often does top the polls of how people actually do vote. In 130 Labour Tory marginals after the 2005 election, more voters (15 percent) listed “pensions/social security/the minimum wage/poverty in Britain” as the most important issue in deciding how they had voted than any other. This is a staggeringly important fact. Conservatism has to respond to it if it wants to reclaim the centre ground of British politics.
Most people think (unfairly) that the Thatcher governments created more absolute poverty and revelled in it. We don’t respond. We just can’t talk about poverty in terms that could. This isn’t because recent Tory front benches have not worried about unfairness. They have. The problem is that too many other Conservatives have denied the existed of “real poverty” in the UK.
There seems little point in talking about the use of the voluntary sector or parent choice to solve the problem when our language and consistency of purpose has not demonstrated that we give a damn.
But we need to give a damn if we are going to connect with the majority of the British. 58 percent of voters think we do not care about ordinary people. 67 percent think we are out of touch. And 53 percent of voters still think that Labour “cares about the problems that ordinary people have to deal with.” Whatever errors they make, half of all voters still give Labour the motivational benefit of the doubt.
We need to engage, and be seen to engage, with the problems of everyone, above all the poorest, if we are to wrestle the centre right (let along the centre ground) of British politics back. This will need passion and obsession – not a technocratic discussion of choice and freedom. We need to mean it and we need to show it. We can’t talk about means if we have not proved that we care about ends. Our end, our aim, must be fairness.
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