Emily Barley is chairman of Conservatives for Liberty, a campaign group which champions individual freedom and choice over government intervention.
To me it’s always been obvious what the Conservative Party should stand for, but I am increasingly concerned that we are not on the same page at all – not merely on policy issues, but on fundamental values, too.
I joined the Conservative Party as a 17-year-old because it felt like the best fit for my values. Driven by hard work, individual responsibility, aspiration, and love of family, community and country, the Conservative Party felt like coming home.
Back in the 2000s, our party contrasted sharply with the one that dominated my local political scene. Labour stood not for the working man, as the people around me said, but for the politics of grievance, a distrust of individuals and their decisions, and the belief that centralised government and more spending were the answer to all our ills.
Whilst in the last eight years the Labour Party has moved further and further towards these destructive beliefs and ideas, it often feels like the Conservative Party has moved away from having any core values at all.
To an electorate that craves honesty and authenticity, formulating policy by focus group and making cynical attempts to grab the centre ground by adopting old Labour policies just makes people groan in frustration – and then in anger.
The heart of the Conservative Party still beats strong, and that’s why I have faith that we can recover from this slump and better serve our country. But in order to do that we need to have an honest conversation about our failings over the past few years, including the ill-judged general election, the handling of Brexit, and the lack of credibility in our policy programme. We must learn the lessons of our past mistakes.
We then need to understand that the electorate has changed. The old class, industrial and geographical divides are weaker than ever, and people are the savviest they have ever been. Voters see through spin and bluster, and they know when we’re advocating a policy not because we believe it, but because we think they’ll like it. They see that our policy programme is all over the place with no underpinning beliefs or values, and they don’t like it.
The only way forward in this smarter, more cynical era is to do the right thing and be honest, authentic and coherent. There may be times where this feels risky or potentially damaging, but it’s time our politicians woke up to the reality that whatever the consequences of honesty, the consequences of dishonesty will always be worse. You may think you have got away with your spin, but the public sees through it – and has a long memory.
Here it’s important to say that the Conservative Party always has been – and always should be – a broad church. Aiming for ideological purity is a fool’s errand. That means that disagreements on policy issues and priorities are inevitable, which in turn means that the way we handle internal disagreements is critical. Open debate based on mutual respect and shared values is absolutely key.
But when it comes to talking about shared values there is a problem; we don’t seem to be sure what they are. So I’m here to lay out a few values that I think can be agreed across the factions and traditions of the Conservative Party.
Faith in people and individual responsibility: we trust that adults are capable of making their own decisions and that though they may need support sometimes, we should not try to control or patronise them. The flip side of choice is responsibility, and it’s fundamentally Conservative to believe that individuals need to be responsible and accountable for their own decisions – both to promote fairness, and to act as an incentive for good decision making.
Support for families and communities: it’s not particularly fashionable to talk about the importance of family and community, but nevertheless this instinct is something I believe we have in common. The next generation should ultimately be our priority, and supporting families is the best way to support children. In turn, cohesive, well-functioning communities support families, and can improve quality of life for people in so many ways.
Valuing work and aspiration: we believe that work pays off, and as Conservatives we should be clear about formulating policies that support and promote work and its fair reward. We are fundamentally optimistic about the ability of people to build the kind of lives they want for themselves and their families, and should always be on the side of people who want to do better – and not just in terms of a narrow financial definition of aspiration.
These basic, uncomplicated values are things I think we Conservatives have in common. And if we can stick to them – and alongside honesty and authenticity – live and breathe them, using them as a framework for policy development and campaign strategy, then I think we’ll find that much of the public shares them, too.