Beyond the recent polling returns, there is a sustained feeling that the Conservatives have not yet ‘sealed the deal’ with the British electorate. Many non-party aligned people I speak to seem resigned that Labour has probably ‘lost it’, rather than elated that we have actually ‘got it’. Perhaps there are several factors at play here.
Firstly, the public are rightfully still angry with the wider political establishment, given that the revelations around expenses have continued to dominate the domestic political news agenda. From the House of Commons to the Lords and now to the Standards and Privileges Committee – the steady drip, drip of stories continues to dampen what should be a surge in the public’s positive energy for a change of government. Instead they are left with the persistent and pervasive doubt whether anyone in our political institutions actually understands why voters and taxpayers are so angry with the current ‘way of doing politics.’
Secondly, although we are nowhere near out of the woods with regard to national economic recovery, there is a marginal risk that the electorate may succumb to a political version of the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ – in other words, that they simultaneously blame the Labour Government for creating the conditions around our national predicament but also falsely identify them as the most reliable support through to hopeful recovery (at least compared to the political alternatives). Combined with an emphasis on the Tories perceived class ‘barrier’, this will obviously inform Labour’s campaign narrative in the run-up to the General Election.
Thirdly, although most polling confirms that the public realizes the country cannot continue on its current structural path, there is probably an underlying fear as to what the actual impact of change will mean for ordinary families, taxpayers and employees. Change, rather like planning permission, is fine until it happens to you, your family and your friends. The potential for ‘economic NIMBY-ism’ is all too clear when considering the scale of structural economic reform which the UK now requires in order to successfully compete in the future.
So how should we engage with these potentially constraining factors? The suggestion here is that the Conservatives need to develop a more positive campaign narrative around ‘Meeting the Challenge of Change’, which would perhaps encompass three principal elements.
The first part might centre on defining the forward economic reality for the UK beyond our current difficulties. This environment is principally defined by increasing economic competition through globalisation, with countries such as India and China competing on both the high and low-value ends of international product and service markets. We need to explain that these competitive forces will have direct consequence for the UK’s economic structures and labour markets – in other words, the second round of globalisation after the recent financial crisis. In response we need to encourage the rebalancing of our economy through: a renewed emphasis on private enterprise; a refocusing of public expenditure to better support GDP-growth; and distinguishing between expenditure on public services and the wider public sector, with the focus on ‘Frontline First’.
As Marx reminded us (!), from economics comes politics. Therefore a second element might engage with the public’s doubts over current political representation and practice. We need to underline that we have a ‘better way of getting to a better place’, particularly in reference to standards of transparency – otherwise we cannot expect non-aligned voters to reinvest their trust in us with any degree of permanency, in the same way our banks are finding it hard to attract fresh capital without providing fuller disclosure. We also need to spell out how this ‘new way of doing politics’ will actually produce better representation, better decisions and better outcomes. Above all, we need to demonstrate consistency – if ‘we’re in it together’ we need to show that this concept applies equally, regardless of relative position inside or outside formal party politics or networks of influence.
Finally we need to underline that the successful delivery of this agenda will require both a change of government and a change of attitude. A change of attitude because individuals and organisations alike will need to take personal responsibility for adjusting to the new economic environment (‘cutting our coats according to the cloth’), and a change of government because if the role of government is to act as mid-wife for positive change, Labour’s approach is completely inadequate to this task.
We should not just settle for replacing Labour, we should be prepared to exceed them both in terms of ambition and delivery. How can we develop this agenda? Well, only others can answer that question – perhaps beginning with you…