Nicky Morgan is Secretary of State for Education and MP for Loughborough.
The Conservative Party is one of the oldest and most successful political parties in the Western world, and one that I’m proud to have been a member of for the past 27 years. But if recent events at home and abroad have taught us anything, it is that longevity is no guarantee of future survival – let alone success.
I decided to become a parliamentary candidate just after the 1997 election, following the most crushing defeat in our party’s history. Having lived through the 1992-1997 Parliament, in which we provided a textbook study of how a political party can implode, I was determined to stop those destructive forces in our party from becoming the public face of conservatism. It was clear to me, and others of my generation, that we would need to stand for election and set out a modern positive vision of conservatism, and a conservatism that was fit for 21st century Britain.
I fought the marginal seat of Loughborough in 2004 and, after losing in 2005 by just under 2,000 votes in a hard fought campaign, I very quickly agreed to restand. I made that decision and commitment to Loughborough on one condition: that the party elected someone who could reach out to the voters we had failed to convince in 2005. That person was David Cameron, and I know that it is only because of his leadership that we have been able to reconnect with the middle ground in the years that have past.
By 2010, I had defeated the Labour incumbent to win Loughborough and, in 2015, I was able to almost triple my majority. I did that through having a strong local track record, and by building a diverse coalition of voters – refusing to accept that there were no-go areas for the Conservatives in Loughborough.
Rather than focus exclusively on the Conservative heartland – our villages and leafier suburbs, I spent just as much time focused on the more disadvantaged parts of the town centre. I worked closely with Loughborough’s sizeable Bangladeshi community not simply asking for their votes on election day, but engaging with their community on the issues that matter to them. And rather than neglecting student voices, I have made championing our town’s university a priority.
I know that many of my colleagues in Westminster have done the same: taken an opposition-held seat and turned it blue by building a big tent that reflects the true diversity of the constituents we represent. It takes a lot of hard work and strong determination. It’s very hard to explain to your loved ones why knocking on doors in the rain, and occasionally having them slammed in your face, is a good idea.
My experience of campaigning in and representing my Midlands seat has convinced me that what the British people want from their Government isn’t a great mystery. They want it to be well-run and competent, to run a sound economy, to watch out and stand up for British interests at home and overseas. They want to know that when they need them, excellent health and education services are there for them and their families. They want efficient local councils, public transport that works and doesn’t cost the earth, and politicians who remember who pays their wages and who generates the taxes that they spend.
Above all, they don’t want “radical” policies designed to excite Westminster think-tanks, Twitterati or the commentariat. What they do want is for policy decisions to be fair: fair to those paying for them and fair to those affected by them. They want politicians who level with them, to explain the choices on offer, the trade-offs involved and why they have taken a particular approach.
We cannot forget all of this. We must remember the wilderness years of 1997-2010, when some seemed to think that internal navel-gazing and “policy purity” were more important than being able to make and implement decisions which changed things for the benefit of our fellow country men and women.
Under Cameron, we set about extending the appeal of the Conservative Party, and reached out to people who had never voted for us before. I know that this appeal is part of the reason I was able to be successful in Loughborough.
The next leader needs to be able to further this approach – heeding the lessons of last Thursday’s vote; reaching out to the disenfranchised and to those who feel abandoned by their traditional Labour Party; making it clear that BME voters have a home in with us; having horizons that extend north of Watford, and convincing those who want Britain to continue to be a modern outward facing nation that the Conservatives are the party for them.
That has to be the right approach – not just for our party and, in particular our new parliamentary colleagues who worked so hard to win their seats in May, but more importantly for the country as a whole. If we walk away from the British people, they won’t follow us as we veer off into an ideological sunset. The Labour Party maybe in disarray today, but those who became complacent at the prospect of facing Jeremy Corbyn may soon find themselves confronted by an opposition which, while being no less damaging for our country, is much more serious about victory.
The need for a broad, positive and confident vision of conservativism has never been more pressing – and it is the vision that our next leader must adopt.