Robin Gwynn was the Conservative candidate for Jarrow in the 2017 General Election.
I’m an optimist, and still believe our underlying national strengths will pull us through Brexit – hopefully at the clean-break end of the spectrum. That includes our capacity to absorb a depth of public debate that none of the EU and other countries currently shaking their heads over us would even remotely consider launching, let alone withstand themselves.
But – however we emerge on the other side – as a Party we cannot afford to ignore the extent to which the Conservative brand has been trashed in recent years. Anyone who is posting on social media or knocking on doors with a blue rosette knows this – not just in opposition heartlands, but on traditionally friendlier turf too. The pervasive gap between statistical reality and public perception in so many policy areas is painfully telling, and should be ringing much louder alarm bells.
Virtually everything we currently plan or achieve, at local or national level, bounces off the received wisdom that Conservatives have suspect motives which put us on the wrong side of every argument. I am saddened that sensible acquaintances increasingly seem to think of me differently once they realise I’m a Tory activist, pigeon-holing me into various categories. A floundering opposition, or piecemeal excellent policy making (take a bow, Michael Gove), are not sufficient in themselves to reset the balance.
Any Brexit poll bounce (dream on) at the next general election could still be wiped out by such perceptions of toxic Toryism. We must now face up to taking sufficiently robust steps to tackle that head on. Please read the rest of this article with that context up-front in your mind. The problem really is that deep-seated and urgent.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take to save the day – and which are in line with Conservative thinking, if we look hard enough. The nature of such an exercise may involve surprising people – including, no doubt, some Party members. But creative thinking, without surrendering our principles, is exactly what’s needed to uproot the widespread perception of what current Conservative policy and behaviour looks like.
So here is my main proposal:
We should launch a process to achieve national agreement on how much funding the NHS needs over at least the next parliament – with parties having to show how they would provide it. Versions of this idea are circulating, whether called a Royal Commission or anything else. I believe it is critical for Conservatives to get behind this and drive it, with polling and anecdotal evidence suggesting that voter suspicions about Tory designs on the NHS are our core problem. If we don’t convince people that we are not out to dismantle the NHS – however much funding we announce unilaterally – we may as well conduct our next election campaign in a vacuum chamber.
Of course, this doesn’t mean writing a huge blank cheque: that is where the politics comes in. Much of the costing information is already available, and the subject of public debate. But consider the following advantageous angles for Conservatives that could follow agreement of an overall NHS funding envelope:
- Once the cost has been set out and agreed, each Party has to show how it would find the money – including in their election manifesto. That returns NHS funding squarely to the arena of political debate, but without the emotional factors about overall commitment, where we are seen on less solid ground. It also helps us around another perceived weakness in our approach towards the electorate – the risk of seeming to take them for fools. Properly presented, I believe voters would value a clear choice between the parties on how to fund the NHS, which they themselves have deemed to be the top priority. So if we believe we can only find the given sum by affecting other ring-fenced budgets and netting-off efficiency savings, we should say so. And if Labour are only prepared to tax and borrow to find the money, with no commitment to efficiency, let them say so too. The voters are well able to work out what they prefer, once they know the Tories are behind the NHS as much as the opposition claim to be.
- Talking about efficiency and cost saving within given budgets at last becomes acceptable. Hands up any Party activist brave or foolhardy enough to raise NHS reform at present? Only if you want to be pilloried as the latest media example of a cruel Tory, bent on privatising the NHS and/or selling it across the Atlantic. But common sense shows that any organisation spending over £100 billion per year has scope for making savings and running more efficiently, if only to distribute funding internally to harder-pressed areas. Agreeing the overall budget needs first allows the reform debate finally to get a proper hearing too – since we start by removing the main charge against us, that we want reform instead of adequate funding.
If we can reset the NHS debate in that way, I see opportunities for further work on national reunification and progress built on Conservative values. For example, how about convening a national Jobs and Growth Summit or similar process aimed at turning deep-seated and inter-locking social and economic problems into post-Brexit growth and hope? I am thinking of the complex mix we face at present of entrenched NEET-ism in some areas – especially for working class young white men – alongside skills shortages including in building and other key industries, plus low productivity, training and investment across many sectors (yes, throw in under-recruitment to what’s left of our armed forces; and access to post-school and tertiary education opportunities).
While many ministers and officials across Whitehall are addressing elements of these issues, I see no overall plan or senior driving point to bring it all together into a strategic coherent whole. To do so should however be within our national capability and vision, and bring together both the Prime Minister’s aspirations for our country with the heady opportunities for global Britain if we get Brexit right.