Edward Leigh is MP for Gainsborough.
With the results of the Rochester & Strood by-election in, we Conservatives must remind ourselves that we have always been most successful electorally when we have involved the broadest coalition of people in the party. Our failure to be inclusive and reflect the various tendencies of Conservative sympathisers has produced both alienation from politics on the one hand and lacklustre electoral results on the other. Tory modernisers have been forthright – and correct – in our need to reach out to new communities and bring them into the Conservative family, and we have lessons to learn from Jason Kenney who brought urban immigrants into the folds of Canada’s Conservatives.
This task must be pursued with fervour, but there is no point conquering new ground if we lose the territory which has traditionally been ours. Natural Conservatives are still free people: they can choose to vote for us, but they also choose to vote for someone else or, like far too many, choose to stay home. The category of “people who used to be Tory” has grown too large for any Conservative’s comfort.
We must re-connect with people who are older, less successful, and more worried about the changing world. These people, or a lot more of them, used to vote for us and work in our Conservative associations. We need to win them back. Yes, for many the economy is going well but others are left behind. We must care for them.
While not exhaustive, there are four broad tendencies amongst our members, voters, and sympathisers: Thatcherites (or free marketeers), social conservatives, metropolitan liberals, and British patriots. These tendencies overlap quite broadly amongst most Conservatives – I myself unquestionably subscribe to three of the four listed. But our failure to keep all these four tendencies involved and with a stake in the game has been part and parcel of our lack of electoral success.
Though not the numerically the strongest, the metropolitan liberals are in the ascendancy – after all, our Prime Minister & party leader is from their pack. He can’t be blamed for that: his is a perfectly legitimate tendency in Conservative politics. But while Notting Hill and Chipping Norton doubtless look at this government with achievements they feel proud of, can any of the other three tendencies claim likewise?
The second group are social conservatives: often breezily dismissed as bitter old people but in fact they come from all ages, and – especially the Evangelicals and Catholics – are those most likely to be manning soup kitchens, volunteering with the less fortunate, and voicing concern for oppressed minorities in the Middle East. But on what for social conservatives has proved the central issue – same sex civil marriage – our time has been spent in opposition to Number 10’s insistence on prying open a Pandora’s Box most thought had been “settled” by the compromise of civil partnerships.
Thatcherites, free marketeers, and the pro-business community are the third group – numerically quite strong. But our hopes for a drastically simpler tax system and other root-and-branch reforms have been hamstringed by being forced to share power with the Lib Dems. We’d also like action on education vouchers and making it easier to do business, while protecting the City’s place as the best place for financial services the world over.
Finally we have the patriotic tendency, those whose sympathies are Conservative because of concern for the national interest. Euroscepticism is arguably the most prominent quality of this tendency, and we have secured the promise of an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. But making that promise actual relies on winning elections, and a great swathe of this community have been lured away by the unachievable temptations proffered by Farage & Co.
There seems too little diversity inside the Conservative government. Today there’s an impression you have to conform to get on. When Geoffrey Howe resigned, Mrs Thatcher replaced him with William Waldergrove from his side of the party. Indeed she filled her cabinet with her enemies. A mistake, perhaps, if you are a political anorak but she promoted people irrespective of where they stood in the party. Today, meanwhile, we all know that not a single MP who voted against a three-line whip for a referendum has been promoted, yet apparently the referendum is now our most important policy.
I think we’re coasting at the moment. We know Ed Miliband is useless – that will get us in but in life it’s dangerous to be complacent and underestimate your enemies (as Iain Martin has pointed out repeatedly) and what if – God forbid – they change their leader?
Without representing all four of these tendencies we risk descending into an amorphous blob of indistinguishable electoral goo. Trotting along to CCHQ the other day to do my bit with some telephone canvassing, I looked at the blurb on the computer screen I was supposed to read and realised that a young Blairite or Cleggite or Milibandite could say much the same. I just said “I hope you vote Conservative” in my politest voice. They didn’t seem too impressed.
Balancing these four tendencies is not a pipe dream or a far-off ideal: it’s the necessary ingredient for success at the ballot box. These constituencies are out there, they are naturally Conservative, and if they don’t feel they have a stake in the game they will stay home. It’s not about taking the chairman’s seat, we’re just looking for a place at the table, and in an electoral democracy the party would do well to keep as many people round the Tory table as we can manage.