Cllr Joel Charles is the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group on Harlow Council.
Freedom, enterprise and responsibility are words that resonate with all Conservative activists. They are a powerful reminder of the foundations our ethos has been built on for generations. We cannot afford to forget what makes the Conservative Party such an effective political force for good.
Unfortunately, however, we have a habit of looking back at the policy platform pursued by previous Conservative Governments, and attempting to bring back popular policies like a poor Hollywood remake. Such tactics are outdated – and do not translate very well into the modern context because we face a different set of domestic challenges. We know that the electorate are savvy, and that they want a fresh outlook, built on principle: a vision which makes it plain that the country’s best days are ahead of it.
As this month ends, it’s worth glancing back to its start, and referencing the Prime Minister’s Party Conference speech, which began to set out what the Government’s future direction would be post-Brexit – a sense of direction supplemented by this week’s Budget. Nurturing ‘opportunity’ as a core objective is crucial if the Party is to reset its policy direction. I’m certainly not advocating we should go full-on Tony Blair and bang on about ‘opportunity, opportunity, opportunity’ – quite the opposite, in fact. The public are tired of soundbite politics.
An opportunity agenda should focus on a One Nation platform which combines action to resolve the economic and social challenges faced by communities across the country. It should pursue greater devolution from Whitehall, and establish initiatives aimed at lifting low-income workers out of the poverty trap. The key question is how to start building a policy platform under the banner of ‘opportunity’ that can achieve just that. Here are just a few suggestions to anchor a renewed policy platform:
Social Justice: The Party must reassert itself as the only credible political force able to lift people out of poverty and give individuals the tools to succeed. The cornerstone of this agenda must be the need to deliver greater social mobility. Every young person, no matter what their background, should be able to achieve their life ambitions. It’s time to appoint a Minister for Social Justice, based in the Cabinet Office, who can lead cross-government efforts to drive home this key agenda.
Home Ownership: Ministers must do more to encourage home ownership, particularly helping younger people to get on the housing ladder. We all know that there must be a balance between incentives and greater housing supply to encourage people to buy. To do this the Government should consider building even more garden towns, designating some of them with affordable development zones exclusively for first time buyers.
The rise of new technology: Artificial intelligence and automation are going to change the way we work, communicate and live. The truth is that rapid technological advances have already triggered a new industrial revolution. We cannot afford for anyone to be left behind and should help communities benefit from new technology. Some jobs will become obsolete as with all industrial revolutions but new opportunities will also arise. We need to support lifelong retraining opportunities and invest, for example, in skills that develop the next wave of programmers and operators who will lead the development of new technology.
Radical policy shift to transform adult social care provision: This could be a game changer if the Government sets out an ambitious and sustainable long-term plan for adult social care. Ministers should use the forthcoming Green Paper on adult social care to break away from the outdated model of social care provision. We cannot afford to kick this issue into the long grass anymore. The Government should invest in measures to promote independent living in later life, prevention which aims to reduce comorbidity and design technology to help people live for longer in their own homes.
Address the UK’s productivity gap: The UK’s productivity is falling behind our key G7 counterparts. Targeted funding for research and development to boost productivity in certain industries will not suffice. We need greater competition and access to people with contemporary skills in the market. More apprenticeship opportunities are one route to close the skills gap. Encouraging more degree apprenticeships could be a way to transform the skills landscape and combine early entry into the labour market with a good standard of higher education relevant to a person’s career ambitions.
Allowing challenging domestic issues to worsen will not be good for the country and will have devastating consequences for our future electoral chances. It’s time to shake up our policy platform or, else, we run the risk of sleepwalking into opposition. Our Party wins elections when we have a spirited, bold and optimistic vision to set out to voters.
The warning to all of us is that Jeremy Corbyn, albeit still gripped by anti-Semitism and the naive politics of the hard-left, is developing a vision and policies that aim to give people a clear alternative. His pledges are unaffordable, but we must not underestimate the power of a narrative built around the politics of hope. The truth is that we have work to do if we are going to encourage future generations to vote Conservative. Success lies in building a modern policy platform around a Conservative vision of opportunity that wins over the hearts and minds of all working people.