James Morris is the Member of Parliament for Halesowen and Rowley Regis.
Last Monday I voted in favour of having a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. I did it because I believe very strongly that we need to give the British people a say, but also for wider reasons which go to the heart of questions about the future direction of the Conservative Party and the breakdown in trust between political parties and the public.
Some people have characterised what happened last week as the re-opening of old party wounds on Europe. Some commentators have argued in the traditional way that we will pay an electoral price if we are seen to be once again "banging on about Europe" because people don’t see it as a top priority issue.
We do need to remain firmly placed on the centre-ground. We do need to talk every day about jobs, education, health, welfare reform, immigration, and the family. However, we also need to recognise that the debate about Europe is now in a mainstream issue and the terms of that debate have changed fundamentally since the battles of the 1990s. Those battles were fought at a time when the default establishment view was that the Euro and further European integration was Britain’s destiny. That is certainly not true now and the issue has become part of a menu of mainstream issues which are of great concern to the British people.
I have long argued that the Conservative Party needs to continue on its journey of change and modernisation that was started when David Cameron became leader. I wrote two pieces for ConservativeHome recently in which I outlined some the challenges the party faces. I argued that:
"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 emphasises 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."
I also argued that "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."
I would argue that the events of last week were damaging to the modernisation project because the way the vote was handled reinforced the perception that the Party and the Government have become detached from public opinion, defending the position of a political elite which has become dangerously divorced from the concerns and anxieties of ordinary people. This gap between politicians and ordinary people has grown into a chasm. For many people the failure of the political establishment to give them a voice on the issue of Europe has reinforced the idea that politicians and the political parties simply aren’t listening to the people.
The fact that we were willing to hold a referendum on changing the voting system – not a subject that was raised by a single person I spoke to during the election campaign as being a pressing concern – whilst refusing to grant one on Britain’s membership of the EU just adds force to the impression that politicians’ priorities are not aligned with those of the voting public.
As a party we need to urgently close this gap because it is leading to an erosion of trust and a suspicion of our motives which threatens to further poison the Conservative brand. At the 2010 election many people voted for us because they wanted change. The danger is that they perceive that we haven’t changed and have come to represent the same old views of a political elite sitting in its cosy Westminster world utterly divorced from the concerns of ordinary people.
Offering a referendum on Europe isn’t the only answer but it would be a significant step forward and it is entirely compatible with a government which is pursuing a localism agenda with the explicit objective of giving people more power over their lives. We need to have the courage to take the modernisation of the party to the next stage. By taking some radical steps to reconnect with the British people we can once again regain the trust and moral authority which is in danger of draining away.