The Liberal vs Mainstream Conservatism debate continues a great discussion within the Conservative Party that has raged since 1997. By the mid-1990s the mainstream of the Conservative Party (reflected in the views of centre-right think-tanks, academics, councillors, and party activists) had a set of policy interests and assumptions that still broadly dominate:
- a belief in fairly low (but by no means libertarian) levels of public spending and tax
- tight control of inflation and flexible labour markets as higher priorities than “full employment”
- low regulation and competition in the private sector
- limits on “nanny state” restrictions or interference with people’s private lives or mundane business conduct
- reforms to create quasi-markets in the public sector (especially in health and education) so as to make public services work better for the interests of their users
- reforms to welfare that enhance the life chances of those on welfare instead of trapping them in poverty
- a belief that EU integration had already gone too far and there needed to be renegotiation of our position within the EU
- strong defence
- tough punishments for those convicted of crimes
By the mid-2000s, David Cameron managed to add the following two key elements to this list, whilst the third and fourth reflected evolving views within the party (the third had simply not been an issue in the mid-1990s and on the latter it had been more split on the issue earlier than today):
- a belief in improving the environment (at least in the sense of recycling and respect for wildlife and green spaces) as a political concern and an aspect of Conservatism (this was, in my view, his most important contribution to Conservative thought, and would not have happened in the same way without him)
- a belief in marriage as a key protection against child poverty
- a belief in better controlling immigration
- opposition to ID cards and a general civil liberties agenda
Now the question is not really whether this is what mainstream Conservatism is – that is clear. Rather, the question is whether mainstream Conservatism can win.
Many centre-right commentators appear to believe not. They believe that the elections of 2001 and 2005 (and, to a lesser extent, 1997) were fought on “right wing” platforms reflecting the mainstream 1990s Conservative outlook detailed above, whilst the 2010 election moved the discussion a little to the centre by appending the other three elements. But, they feel, the problem has been that Cameron has not been able to change mainstream Conservatism enough – the Party is still understood by the public as having the sort of views set out above, and they don’t vote for it.
Others dispute this. They contend that the 2001 and 2005 General Elections were not fought on the platforms above – in particular they were very narrowly focused, with very little emphasis upon the economy or public service reform, as opposed to Europe or immigration. The problem was not Conservatism, it was that only a marginal component of Conservatism was on display to voters. On this tale it was the focus upon that component of Conservatism that made the party seem “right wing”.
The solution, therefore, is not to give up on core Conservative ideology. Rather, it is either (a) to ensure that there is proportionate focus, in our offering, upon those parts of Conservatism that speak to the broad concerns of the voters (in particular the economy, health, education, security issues); or (b) (not incompatible with (a)) to broaden the offering so as to encompass issues of mainstream concern as well as newer “focus” issues such as the environment – an “and” theory of Conservatism.
Graeme Archer argues that “and” theorists should seek a Conservatism that embraces both mainstream and liberal Conservatives. But that is to miss the point. It is the liberal Conservatives that reject the "and" theory. They say we cannot win as broad-offering mainstream Conservatives, because the voters don’t agree with us. Instead we must de-emphasize those parts of our beliefs that are unattractive to voters (such as the belief in a smaller state than voters might like, or the belief that renegotiation of our position within the EU is a policy priority) and focus instead upon the broadly-attractive parts of our offering. There isn’t an “and” theory that encompasses liberal Conservatives, because liberal Conservatives reject the view that “and” Conservatism can win.
Daniel Finkelstein of The Times (£) says that "the Conservative Party is better off electorally when it reaches out to the centre". But (setting aside quibbles about the term "centre"), who is denying that Conservatives should reach out to the centre? Mainstream Conservatives want to reach out to the centre from the centre-right. But the Liberal Conservatives appear to believe that the Conservative Party can win without either pitching itself on the centre-right or reaching out to the centre-right. They appear to believe that voters of the Right will vote for whichever of the main two parties is "closest" to them on a linear left-right scale, regardless of how far away that party is.
But a party of the Liberal centre that makes no attempt to reach out to the right will either look inauthentic (as in 2010) and hence not be voted for or simply provide little reason to take part. People vote because they want to be part of something, because they see a political party as their representative. A party that is too distant from me ceases to be truly my representative and provides little reason for me to vote for it. That is just as true of right-wing voters as of centrists. Daniel Finkelstein says he wants to broaden the appeal of Conservatism. Well, Mainstream Conservatism is a broader offering than Liberal Conservatism.
Tim says that Liberal Conservatives have a “lack of confidence in Conservatism”. He is correct. They lack faith that, because Conservatism is true, voters will see the truth (for truth is always one’s greatest ally in politics) or, if they do not see it at first, we will eventually be vindicated by events (e.g. on the euro). They must lack that faith because either they lack the faith that truth will out, or they lack faith in the voters, or because they don’t fundamentally share the belief in mainstream Conservatism.
Those of us with more faith in the world and in our ideas would like a Party that promulgates and implements those ideas. And since we comprise 79% of the Party on ConservativeHome’s last survey count, it does not seem so unreasonable that we should hope the Conservative Party would aspire to do just that.