John Hustings is a regular visitor to ConservativeHome.
It’s the issues, not the policies, that matter
There is a lot of muddled thinking
regarding the concept of a "centre ground" in politics. Virtually
everyone accepts that it is desirable to be positioned on the centre
— or more importantly, to be perceived
as on the centre — but few have any real understanding about what it
means. We have the general sense that it is advantageous because it
allows us to present ourselves as reasonable and moderate, in contrast
to our opponents, who will be perceived by the public as extreme or
even dangerous. It is a natural, understandable instinct
for people to feel safer in trusting those they consider to be part
of the mainstream.
We also know that, as Conservatives,
we haven’t been very good at presenting ourselves as centrists. Even
if our views on issues resonate with the public, we still manage to
find ourselves pigeonholed as far to the right — and out of the mainstream
— in contrast to the warm, cuddly and caring Lib Dems (who advocate
such "mainstream" policies as extending the vote to prisoners).
There is also the dilemma that
while the public want their political leaders to be generally mainstream,
they also want them to be able to make tough, difficult decisions (one
of Mrs Thatcher’s chief attractions was that she was seen as a woman
who "gets things done"). Taking a "mid-point centre"
position on every issue would be politically disastrous; there are many
issues over which it is absolutely necessary to take a firm stand one
way or the other: I don’t know what the mid-point centre position on
ID Cards would be, for example, but it doesn’t seem to me desirable
to advocate it.
Was Michael Howard on
the "centre ground" or did he "lurch to the right"?
In order to reinvent ourselves
in the minds of the public as centrists — crucial to winning elections
— we must learn the lessons of past failures.
While Michael Howard did achieve
modest gains at the last election — and he has been rightly credited
with uniting the party at an extremely difficult time — it has become
common consensus that he "lurched to the right" in the election
run-up as part of an attempt to rally core supporters. It has been
assumed that it was being "too right-wing" which caused
the Tories’ eventual defeat.
There is little doubt that
Michael Howard was perceived as right-wing and thus very much
not on the centre ground. Polls published in September illustrated
this problem. When people were asked their opinions as to where Michael
Howard stood on the left-right axis, he was viewed as far to the right
on the political spectrum, even by his own supporters. Anthony Wells’ Polling Report blog used a numerical scale averaging polls
conducted by both YouGov and ICM. On this scale, very left-wing was
counted as -100, left-wing as -67, slightly left of centre as -33, centre
as 0, slightly right of centre at +33 and so on.
The Conservative Party was
seen as slightly right of centre at +34, while Michael Howard was placed
at +42 by Conservative voters, and an even more extreme +62 and +65
by Lib Dem and Labour voters.
When one considers that the
average voter places himself somewhere quite close to the centre, it
suggests that Michael Howard’s Conservatives were viewed as extreme
and well out of touch with the public’s sympathies.
But was Michael Howard really
I believe the assumption that
he was deserves a bit of scrutiny.
Let us recall the Conservatives’
2005 election manifesto, and most especially the 10 words
we were asked to remember:
The first thing that becomes
apparent to me is that there is absolutely nothing contentious about
any of these promises. I hardly think that Labour were advocating "less
police, dirtier hospitals, higher taxes, school indiscipline and uncontrolled
immigration" (even if that is in practice what they would provide).
Needless to say, there is nothing radical here; there is nothing even
to argue over. So there is no great political divide presented;
no clash of worldviews. There is a clear emphasis instead on the Conservatives
being able to manage things better than Labour can.
The 2005 election manifesto
looks for all the world like the product of a moderniser (indeed it
is, since we know that David Cameron wrote it). It certainly doesn’t
sound like it is inspired by the writings of Hayek or Friedman. It wouldn’t
appear to embody "unreconstructed Thatcherism".
Michael Howard was not even
offering to cut taxes. The "less taxes" commitment actually
refers to increasing spending at a slightly slower rate than
Labour. Whatever this is, it isn’t radical. It’s actually very moderate;
one might even think it "centrist".
So why was Michael Howard viewed
as so extremely right-wing when the platform he campaigned on was for
all intents and purposes a centrist one?
Partly I believe it was a personality
problem. Michael Howard, though no doubt a very charming fellow in private,
has a slightly domineering public persona and this shouldn’t be discounted
as a factor in his unpopularity. But there was also the focus on immigration.
It has come to be accepted
that the Conservatives were both wrong in their rhetoric on immigration
(in particular Bob Spink’s "what part of send them back don’t you
understand?") and in their heavy focus on this issue. I believe
this part of the analysis is quite correct. But few have fully comprehended
why the Tories focused so strongly on immigration. There has been
the assumption that Howard focused on immigration because he’s right-wing
and that’s just what right-wingers do. I will question whether immigration
really is a right-wing issue in a moment. But first I’d like to suggest
what I believe is the real reason for why the Tories focused so heavily
on this one issue.
Firstly, it was the one area
in which the Tories were leading in the polls. Indeed, it was the
only main policy area in which we had a lead over Labour. (Those
who believe that our immigration policy was wrong and resulted in our
defeat should consider this. Would the Tories have won on the exact
same platform minus the immigration policy?) It is a quite understandable
temptation to wish to emphasise one’s own obvious strengths; a temptation
we were unable to resist.
Secondly, the undue focus on
immigration was a direct result of having such a policy-lite
manifesto. On most other issues our policies were either insufficiently
different from Labours’ to emphasise, or we were too afraid to mention
the differences that did exist because we had little faith in
our ability to persuade the public of the merits of our policies. In
other words, on everything other than immigration we were running away
from the argument.
Let’s now question whether
controlling immigration really is a right-wing policy. Was immigration
really a "core vote" issue? Was it part of a so-called "dog-whistle"
tactic designed to rally natural supporters but no-one else?
The extent of the Conservatives’
lead on this one issue suggests not (their lead came in spite
of the Conservatives’ general unpopularity). Successive polls indicate
that 80 per cent, including 52 per cent from ethnic minority communities,
want to see much tougher immigration controls (see Migration Watch UK
for details). The point is: supporters of all
parties want immigration controlled; there is no left-right divide on
this issue. Controlling immigration commands overwhelming support
across the board.
Perversely, however, David
Cameron’s abandonment of Michael Howard’s one manifestly popular policy
has been portrayed as a movement towards the centre! If anything demonstrates
just how out of touch our political elites are it is this.
If anything should be a "centre
ground policy" then it should’ve been Michael Howard’s immigration
policy. Except it wasn’t, because immigration simply isn’t a centre-ground
policy area. What do I mean by this? Well, although immigration
is an important issue to a lot of people, it simply isn’t an election-deciding
issue in the same way that health, education and the economy are. The
Tories were trailing on health, education and the economy in all of
the pre-election polls. One policy lead was simply not enough to compensate
for trailing in other important policy areas.
and the Abandonment of Centre Ground Issues
Janet Daley recently published
a (very short) pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies
in which she wrote of the defeatist mindset which has taken hold of
many in the Conservative Party. After interviewing several Tory MPs
she discovered that they:
"..tended to err on
the side of retrenchment from what are often seen as traditional Conservative
objectives such as reducing the role of the state. There also seemed
to be an assumption among politicians that, particularly with regard
to the public services, talk of a smaller state frightened voters who
saw it either as code for cut-backs in provision or for privatisation.
There was little appetite for educating public opinion in the realities
of, for example, European models of health care provision which were
based on mixed funding or government-regulated social insurance."
Conservatives in recent years
have become so reluctant to address misconceptions that retreating from
traditional positions has become an almost habitual process. Some subjects
— such as the rise in single-motherhood — have become virtually taboo.
This is an extremely worrying tendency because many of the biggest problems
that our society faces require traditional conservative solutions
to stand any chance of being addressed. If the Conservative Party —
out of sheer cowardice — does not advocate the proper solutions, then
no-one will. Further, it means that the case we have to offer is often
simply not heard and people will become ever more ignorant that there
even exist alternative perspectives to the ones currently in
vogue. This will make it all the harder to make the case at a later
date if ever a brave politician decides that he/she wants to confront
— not run away from — the important issues.
Also relevant here is the seemingly
fanatical obsession among Tory "modernisers" with looking
for similarities between the Conservatives’ current predicament and
that faced by Labour in the 90’s. The analogy does not hold up for various
- Right-wing ideas have not been discredited. Attempts to portray the likes of Norman Tebbit or Ann Widdecombe as right-wing equivalents of Tony Benn or Arthur Scargill are nasty and disingenuous. Tony Benn, though immensely popular as a public speaker, achieved nothing in government. Norman Tebbit, on the other hand, served in the most successful post-war British government and personally supervised the Trade Union reforms from which we still benefit. He is not some crazy ideologue whose ideas do not fit in in the real world. It is extremely distasteful that there are so-called Conservatives who should seek to portray him in this way.
- Right-wing ideas have also demonstrably worked elsewhere in the world. Compare the economies
of low-tax USA, Hong-Kong, Singapore or Australia with the high-tax
Eurozone. Compare the socialist-governed India (post-independence) to the currently capitalist India. Take a look at the United States where social conservatives have succeeded in cutting the rate of abortion (something we have dismally failed to do). And so on. In contrast, left-wing dogmas have resulted in mass poverty and destruction across the world. Any comparison between the Thatcherite right and the old left is thus utterly fatuous.
- Most important of all: Blair gave up things he himself no longer believed in. Price and income controls, nationalisation of industry etc, these ideas had been totally refuted. He wasn’t making much of a sacrifice. There are plenty of absurd notions that Labour still cling on to because they have less obviously failed (like their absolutely deranged opposition to selection).
Traditional Tories like myself
are being told we must make sacrifices to regain power, but those
telling us to abandon our principles still believe in those principles
themselves. As Janet Daley says, "There is a serious danger
that…the modernising of the party’s image…could simply be a cover
for political cowardice and a retreat from what elected politicians
personally believe to be right for the well-being of society".
Why is this such a bad thing?
I believe that this defeatist
attitude is harmful in a number of ways:
- The Party looks emasculated. People don’t know what we believe anymore. Supporters feel
less enthusiastic about it. When those at the top don’t know what we stand for, why should anyone else? Furthermore, we haven’t really given up our past beliefs because we know they still work. Modernisation is therefore necessarily cosmetic and confusing.
- Narcisstic reinventions of image (it didn’t begin with Cameron) divert attention away from the
real problems that exist in the country. We become inward, narrow and cynical.
- Instead of playing up our positives, we are always having to play down our negatives. The result of this is negative. Furthermore, we are unable to rebutt the misconceptions people have about our past beliefs because we’re not supposed to believe in them anymore. On "Section 28" or "single mothers", for example, Tories are supposed to simply surrender the argument. The result of this is that the most negative perceptions are enforced as truth.
- It results in in-fighting and division. We are not battling for the same team, we are battling each other. We have prominent Conservative MPs telling us that we are seen as "the nasty party"; this doesn’t really help morale. (It also doesn’t help if those of us who place doctrinal beliefs above tribal loyalty are dismissed as traitors.)
- Most of all (and here is the connection with the overall thread of this essay) it leads to an abandonment of the centre-ground issues. Health, education and the economy are barely mentioned because we don’t want to scare the horses. Because of this, all that is left for us to campaign on are fringe issues. Hence the reason why Michael Howard was perceived as a right-wing extremist while campaigning on a "modernising" platform.
Needless to say, this type
of "movement to the centre" I believe to have been both unnecessary
and unsuccessful. David Cameron appears to have learnt the wrong lesson
of the last election campaign (the lazily accepted consensus that we
were too right-wing) and is thus in line to repeat the same mistakes.
Instead of setting out the case for lower taxes (as David Davis argued),
he is merely seeking to allay fears. George Osborne says he wants to
put "stability before tax cuts"; this is political code for,
"don’t worry we won’t destroy the economy — we’ll be just like
Labour". This approach is certainly not offering a positive
reason to vote Conservative; indeed, it only reinforces the notion that
Labour are more to be trusted on economic matters. On health we see
the same thing. Cameron, in echoing Thatcher’s "the NHS is safe
in our hands", is saying, "don’t worry we won’t destroy all
the hospitals — we’ll be just like Labour". Unless he really surprises
me with his policy review, he won’t actually have much else to say about
health. On education, Cameron has sought to position himself in exactly
the same position as Blair in the somewhat naive contention that since
Blair is so admired around the country it will redound to the benefit
I think Cameron’s entire strategy
is motivated by some rather dubious notions over what constitutes the
"centre ground". He believes that Blair is defined by the
public as the absolute mid-point centre, and so if he fixes himself
to Blair (as opposed to his party), then somehow he can define himself
in the public eye as centrist. But this is just surrendering the centre
ground — and all the arguments that go with it — to our opponents.
If Neil Kinnock had fixed himself to Margaret Thatcher, what would’ve
been the point in that?
Perhaps I’m naive in believing
that democracy should be about setting out competing ideas and allowing
the public to give their verdict on them. But the very fact that we’ve
been so reluctant to do this in the past is what has led to our irrelevance,
triviality and perceived extremism. Cameron hasn’t realised this, and
so has learnt the wrong lessons.
What seems slightly confusing
is that he does seem to have set out on something of a reformist narrative,
which goes something like the following: "Blair is a reformer in
a party which is singularly incapable of the required reform. If you
want real reform, you must vote Conservative."
But by abandoning vouchers
for education (and ruling out selection generally) as well as dedicating
himself to maintaining the NHS in its current structure, he really doesn’t
have any substance to match this narrative. In actual fact, the Conservatives
are just as incapable of genuine reform as Labour. Labour can’t reform
public services because they are still wedded to Old Labour ideas; the
Conservatives can’t offer reform because they have little faith in their
own ideas and are obsessed with aping Labour.
The Economy, Health and
Education: The Real Centre Ground
The economy, health and education
are the issues that matter most. They are the centre ground of British
politics. The failures of William Hague and Michael Howard lay not
in being either right-wing or left-wing but in failing to campaign and
win on these crucial issues.
"Well", you might
say, "easier said than done. The public don’t trust the
Tories on public services; they think we’ll gut them. They don’t trust
us on the economy; they remember boom and bust, the unemployment of
the ’80s, Black Wednesday etc". This is all true. But it is equally
true that we’ll never win an election until we reverse these perceptions,
not just play them down. This requires some degree of bravery, but caution
got us nowhere last time — as I’ve already observed — it actually
made us appear more extreme.
Decades of running away from
the argument on tax, health and education have made people totally ignorant
of the complexity of these issues, and no wonder: they only ever
hear one side of the argument.
We can’t out-Labour Labour.
It is impossible for us to win on these crucial issues — the centre
ground of politics — by offering to do the same thing as Labour. People
won’t trust us to "spend more". Rightly so: they know it goes
against our principles. To win on these issues, then, we need to offer
something different: real reform.
I believe it is possible to
offer positive, popular and right-wing policies in these areas. I won’t
spell them out here. All I will say is that tax cuts and reform of public
services have to be offered together. We can’t argue for tax cuts without
arguing for reform of public services, because otherwise people will
conclude it means we will under-invest in them. Since people only understand
the notion that "extra spending" provides improvements, it
is necessary for us to offer an alternative vision for them not to reach
such a conclusion.
Overview of policy
In arguing that these three
policy areas be given pre-eminence in a campaign, I am in no way suggesting
that other issues are unimportant. I am not suggesting, for example,
that we should change longstanding Party policy on crime, immigration
or Europe. On the contrary, I think our positions on these issues are
generally great strengths — and they have the potential to be extremely
popular under a more image savvy leader like Cameron — but they just
do not seem to me to be where elections are won and lost. David Cameron
needs to be careful that his attempt to broaden the Conservative Party’s
focus doesn’t result in a watering down of its strengths. If we become
soft on crime, weak on immigration and fuzzy on Europe we will just
provide an incentive for natural conservatives not to vote or to vote
for other parties. Attempts to purge the party of core supporters seems
both nasty and counter-productive. It isn’t core supporters who are
to blame for the party’s failures.
Furthermore, abandonment of
such "core" positions combined with a reluctance to address
what I have termed the "centre ground issues" will leave Cameron
looking just as irrelevant and extreme as either Michael Howard or William
Hague before him. As far as I’m concerned, if David Cameron runs an
election campaign focusing solely on third world debt, global warming
and synthetic phonics, he will look just as absurd or irrelevant as
Michael Howard campaigning on immigration or William Hague on saving
the pound. The point is that Hague and Howard looked extreme not
because they were focusing on right-wing concerns, but because they
failed to address the centre ground issues of British politics.