Chris Skidmore MP is the MP for Kingswood
Party conference is often a time of reflection, to consider what has been achieved over the past year. But it should also be a platform for a restatement of what still needs to be done. At Manchester this week, the Conservative Party will consider the many achievements of the coalition so far – including the rapid expansion of Michael Gove’s free schools policy, a determination to tackle welfare dependency, lifting over a million people out of income tax altogether and placing a cap on immigration. But in the back of the minds of many delegates will be the thought: what does the party need to do to win in 2015?
Within the party, and especially the 2010 group of MPs who make up half of the parliamentary party, there is an eagerness to explore new ideas, and an enthusiasm to debate our future after the coalition has run its course. Several new books have appeared in recent weeks, considering the future of the Conservative Party after 2015. This should not be taken as criticism of the coalition. In the vacuum of no single party securing a majority, the coalition was formed in the national interest, to prevent Britain from financial meltdown. To their credit, the Lib Dems recognised that our priority had to be tackling Britain’s deficit. In the light of the unravelling euro zone crisis, the coalition was not only necessary, it saved Britain from meltdown under Labour.
But the Conservative Party cannot rely on its record in government alone. We will want to seek a new mandate, fighting for David Cameron to become a Conservative Prime Minister leading a Conservative government. Under the terms of the new Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a general election will be called on 7 May 2015: we have 43 months to win over a new constituency of voters, and to establish the Conservative Party, with its values of aspiration, independence, freedom and responsibility as the party which can successfully meet the challenges that Britain will face in the coming decades. Just as David Cameron began to consider what ideas would best prepare the party to look outwards to modern Britain with the establishment of six policy groups in 2006, four years before the General Election, so now must we begin that same process, renewing our commitment to understanding the issues that matter to the British people.
That not only means looking at today's concerns, but at those for tomorrow: how we can ensure that a child born today will be prepared for facing the world leaving school in 2030; how we can create a new generation of homeowners at a time when demand for housing and expectations of property ownership are at an all time high; how we can ensure that those people who enter retirement- of which 1.4 million will do so before 2015- will be able to face their old age with dignity and can be cared for, knowing that the majority will now live beyond 85.
And in a world where the balance of power is inexorably shifting eastwards, in favour of flourishing free markets that do not recognise limitation, we must move with the with the grain of the world and not against it. These are not petty obsessions or navel gazing, but a testament to the strength of feeling within the Conservative party that we are the party of the long-term, not the short-term, the party that recognises that reform must be a constant process of adaptation to the modern world, and a recognition that our country is changing, and we must change with it.
At this Conference, delegates will have the opportunity to begin the process of considering what the party stands for in the longer term, to debate policies for the future, as we should: new ideas matter, but take time to be refined into coherent policies. We cannot shy away from the immediate priority of sorting out our nation's finances, but we must equally not shy away from thinking about where we should be in four, or even forty years time.
This cannot mean looking backwards to the politics of the twentieth century. In the second decade of the twenty first century, a new generation of Conservatives understand that we must look forward. Unlike Ed Milliband, whose "predator" speech read like vintage Michael Foot, to preach the politics of envy and to embark on a class war upon the financial sector is to ignore at our peril the reality of the global world in which we now exist.
There has been a crisis of confidence in the power of institutions and the state: people no longer trust the state. The answer to the failure of Labour’s Big state is not a Bigger state. Instead, the right side of the argument is how we can liberate people from the state’s grasp. Through its Localism and Welfare Reform Bills, the coalition has made vast progress. But we can go further, ensuring that those who do the right thing in life are rewarded- rewarded by freeing them from the state, its regulations, and its demands upon hard working peoples' hard-earned wages. To paraphrase Milliband's cliched words, the state remains part of the problem, not the solution.
In doing so, we should seek to restore the influence of the individual within society. The driver for this will be responsibility. But who is to be the arbiter of what is considered responsible? Milliband has suggested that the state, within its extended powers, should be the final judge, yet this is to refuse the individual any say in their own behaviour.
But it is not the state’s role to act as umpire: individual responsibility matters, with people taking ever greater control over their own lives, and being held accountable for it. We must fight for rewarding responsibility, but within a new understanding that it is the individual who should be placed at the heart of their behaviour. This will mean coming to a new consensus about how the relationship between the individual and the state should be defined for the future, at a time when technology is ensuring that individuals living within a world without walls have greater power and control than ever before.
As Conservatives, we must win the argument that it is not what the state can do for you, but what you can do for your communities and the society in which we each, as individuals, owe to each other.