James Morris is the Member of Parliament for Halesowen and Rowley Regis.
The debate about the modernisation of the Conservative Party is often characterised as a debate between the left and right of the party. This is a false distinction and misses the point. I am someone who believes that the party needs to continue the process of “modernisation”, which started when David Cameron became leader. All political parties need to evolve and change to respond to the changes in the wider world. For me, “modernisation” is not something akin to a superficial make-over, but something much more fundamental. As I said in previous posts, there is danger that in government this process has stalled, or even gone into reverse.
The modern Conservative Party is capable of holding within it many competing views. That is the nature of a healthy, functioning political party. It is important that the process of modernisation emaphasies the value of this broad church, for true modernisation is not about two competing views of how the party should develop, but a synthesis of the diversity of views within the party into an organic whole. True modernisation is about ensuring that the British people understand that we are on their side.
What are the issues which unite: a strong passion to see Britain’s social problems tackled through reform to our welfare system and education system, a belief that Britain needs to be a more entrepreneurial country where the private sector provides more jobs and opportunities, and where the state doesn’t get in the way. These are core values which everyone within the Parliamentary Conservative Party would probably share. There are differences of views, perhaps about the means, but not the ends.
These core values could also be characterised as “progressive” in the sense that they are radical in their prescription, and envisage a major change to the status quo. They envisage a world in which there is more equality of opportunity, where there is a route out of poverty and unemployment, where our welfare and education systems provide a route out of dependency. They are neither of the left or the right, but are the right solutions to the deep-seated social and economic problems we face as a country.
Yet for us to be able to deliver this radical agenda, people need to believe that they can trust our motives. They must believe that we are acting in their interests, and not in the interests of an elite or special interest group. At the last election, despite our advance, people still mistrusted our motives. As someone who fought and won in a tough marginal seat, I had direct experience of this.
Many people in Britain know in their heart of hearts that we cannot go on as we have before. They know that radical solutions are required and they know that Labour don’t have any real answers. Yet despite all our work in seats like mine, in areas of the country where we haven’t traditionally been strong, there is still a sense among some swing voters that they don’t quite believe our motives when we present and explain our radical solutions. That is why we didn’t win a majority at the last election – a reality that some seem to have conveniently forgotten.
That is where the process of modernisation is so crucial. We still need to work hard to jettison the toxic stain of the past (however much that toxic stain may have been the product of Labour lies and distortion). We have to constantly build trust, especially at this time when many people are feeling bewildered and insecure about what is happening in Britain and around the world.
So modernisation, for me, is about the hard work involved in developing that bond of trust between the party and the people. It is trust that is built through the painstaking work of persuading people that what we say and do is relevant to them. It is important that as local and national campaigners, we build deep connections with the world as it is – not as we would like it to be.
The public don’t care about party debates about left and right couched in ideological terms, or press tittle-tattle about which group has gained the upper hand among the Parliamentary Party. That is why we must all avoid the seductive dangers of seeing the debate in the Conservative Party as still being about traditionalists and modernisers, as if they were two mutually exclusive groups.
We must also avoid the seductive lure of blaming our coalition partners for getting in the way when coalition government is the reality we have to live and negotiate a relationship with. I said in my previous post, the real danger is that the idea takes hold among critical swing voters that somehow the Lib Dems are the nice guys in this government. Looking forward to the next election, we must all work together to ensure that we gain the permission for the radical solutions that many of our constituents know are needed in Britain today.