Charlie Elphicke is the Conservative candidate for Dover and Deal.
The age of three party politics is over. Two party politics is back with a vengeance. And not just any two party politics: Labour has returned to the populist militant hard left of the 1980s and the 1990s.
This is the same hard left we fought – and defeated – in the loony left Labour boroughs of that era.
Their hallmark is extremist populism. Their preferred method the routine, ruthless distortion of the truth with phony figures and false propaganda. Their strategy to frame political debate as being Labour for the poor and the vulnerable versus the Conservatives as the uncaring party of the rich.
To defeat this militant, hard-left Labour Party we need to learn the lessons of history.
Back in 1994, I was standing for a council seat in the London Borough of Lambeth. In those days it was known as ‘Loony Lambeth’. The hard left had destroyed the council’s finances. It was plagued by endemic corruption. The poorest were hit hardest by the council’s failures.
The Conservatives were losing heavily in the London council elections that year, yet we gained in Lambeth and Labour lost power. We booted out the Labour Leader, Mayor, and Chairman of Housing. Why?
There were three key principles that led us to victory: caring conservatism, the rapid rebuttal of Labour lies, and a compelling manifesto on how we would improve people’s daily lives.
Step one to victory is to conquer the idea that the Conservatives are on the side of the rich. Every Conservative I know is in politics because we care about the vulnerable and the least well off. At the election, we failed to explain to people how our values offer the best for people and their families.
Conservatism is at its best when we communicate a vision of Britain as a land of opportunity, aspiration and success. A place where anyone, whatever their background, can achieve and succeed. Where they can climb the ladder of life. A country where people can get jobs, a home to call their own and achieve their full potential. Where Government gives people a hand-up, not handouts – and hard work brings rewards.
Our caring conservative tradition is also central to all that we are. This is why we must showcase our values as the party of compassion. The conservatism that seeks to protect people from the worst excesses of the system.
Protecting people, and being the party of compassion, matters every bit as the land of opportunity. This means standing up against rogue landlords, overcharging utility companies, loan sharks, tax dodgers, and unscrupulous employers.
How do we respond to the hard left’s populism? Back in Lambeth 25 years ago, we knew we had to set out how our plans would improve lives.
We had a simple three-point programme. To stop corruption – with a little red “stop sign” logo; to cut the council tax; and to set out our record of action in the community. The record of action mattered as it gave us a right to be heard, and added credibility to all that we said.
Back then we understood that a lie is half way around the world before truth has got its boots on. We had to counter the hard left’s propaganda at speed. So we were aggressive in rebuttal. No Labour lie or half-truth ever went unanswered.
This is what we must do now. Start by underlining our sense of mission – a vision for the kind of Britain we want to build together with the British people. Compassionate Conservatism must be at the heart of all that we say and do. Because we are not on the side of the bosses. We are on the side of the British people as a whole.
Labour’s general election case on tuition fees, school funding, and public-sector pay rises was simple and easy to understand. We failed to explain what we would do for people and how we would change their lives for the better.
I’ve spoken to colleagues from across the country who were asked by people on the doorstep what our manifesto offered for them. They struggled to find positive things to say.
Now I’ve heard people say we didn’t have a “retail offer.” But, you know, we’re not selling soap powder here. We are about caring for people and changing lives. We failed to explain how we would do that – and so people didn’t know.
It’s not difficult to think how we could have done so much more to support traditionally Conservative motorists, aspirant home owners, small business people, and the elderly. Or how we could have reached out to families and younger people with lifelong learning, greater help for carers, and more support to get on the housing ladder.
We should have showcased our record of action, too, because it is pretty incredible. We brought Britain back from the brink. We have delivered record employment, a strong economy, a powerful recovery from Labour’s crash, along with pumping vast amounts of cash into the NHS. Our failure to highlight our record cost us heavily.
Finally, we must make sure we have rapid rebuttals for those Labour lies. There is no shortcut here. We have to sharpen up, and set up an effective rapid rebuttal unit under someone who knows what they are doing.
When Labour and their teaching union pals make up a whole load of fake school budget cuts, we have to hit back hard and fast. At the election, we closed our eyes and hoped it would all go away. That cost us dear – and it cost us some great MPs too.
The same applies to the NHS, as well as the heart-rending tragedy of Grenfell Tower where the left are at it with anoter whole pack of shameless lies. The power of the their’s propaganda on social media in particular is growing, and the need for a focus on nailing Labour lies is urgent and must be acted on immediately.
So let’s relearn the lessons from the last time we defeated the hard left. Let’s put caring Conservatism at the heart of all that we do, reinvent ourselves in office with a compelling programme – including showcasing our record of action and delivery in Government – and hit back fearlessly against those Labour lies.