Iain Mansfield is a former senior civil servant, winner of the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Brexit prize, and a Conservative council candidate. He writes in a personal capacity.
A stark feature of the 2017 election was the emergence of an army of independent groups and organisations backing Labour, with very few backing the Conservatives. From ivory trading to welfare reform, school funding to tuition fees, influential groups were queuing up to support the policies of the Left. The election demonstrated that whilst the Conservative Party can still win more votes, the Left has secured an overwhelming dominance amongst those traditionally seen as opinion formers and societal leaders.
A poll held shortly before the election found that fewer than one in ten university staff members were planning to vote Conservative. Statistics amongst teachers are similar, with the BBC recently quoting a former Conservative teacher as saying, “Walking into a teachers’ room is like walking into a socialist convention.” The major charities, many of which receive the bulk of their funding directly from the state rather than from individuals, are vastly more sympathetic to Labour, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as other senior bishops, regularly criticise Conservative policies in the press. The civil service is a little more balanced, though the startlingly consistent views of former permanent secretaries on Brexit demonstrates that the broad church of conservatism does not appear to be well-represented at the highest levels.
It wasn’t always this way. The Church of England was once known as ‘The Tory Party at prayer’, whilst the Sir Humphreys of their day were stalwarts of conservatism. Academia has always had a Marxist streak, but as late as the 1950s it was credible for CP Snow to set a novel in a Cambridge college divided into left-wing and right-wing factions. The Left also had its strongholds, from the trade unions to the Fabian Society, which groups on both sides contributing to the public debate.
We cannot simply abandon entire swathes of society to the left. This is true not simply for the short-term goal of winning votes, but because of the importance of such institutions in shaping society as a whole, including via the education of the young and the contribution to political and societal discourse. An important part to this is ensuring there are no areas of society where Conservative voices cannot be heard, as Sam Gyimah, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others are doing with their campus tours. But if we are to reclaim these institutions for conservatism, we must do much more.
A more positive approach to the public sector
As Conservatives, we rightly believe that the private sector can often do a better job than the public sector at delivering the outcomes that people want. It is important to remember, however, that this is for structural reasons: the incredible power of prices as signalling mechanisms, or the way that meaningful competition can unleash innovation and improvements in performance.
Too often when speaking on this subject, some Conservative politicians give the impression that they believe that people who work in the private sector are innately better, more capable or harder working – a conclusion that is not just wrong, as anyone who has spoken to a nurse or teacher will tell you, but which understandably alienates hard working public sector employees, driving them into the arms of our opponents. When championing the private sector we must ensure we do so for the right reasons, and do not simultaneous denigrate the public sector.
Alongside this, as many Conservative MPs have already called for, we must take a more compassionate approach to public sector salaries, particularly for those on lower and middle incomes. The touch decisions taken by the Coalition to freeze pay and reform pensions were badly needed, but after eight years of pay restraint, salary increases in line with inflation are essential if we are to granted a fair hearing.
Strategically selecting Conservatives when making public appointments
Many of the most important public decisions in the UK are not made by government ministers, but by arms-length bodies. Ministers have little direct control over such bodies, but the principal power they do have is to appoint their leadership, typically including the chief executive, air and board members. Unfortunately, whilst Labour ministers typically appoint individuals who share their values, Conservative ministers have typically taken a more even-handed approach, meaning – as ConservativeHome has long recognised – Labour supporters are significantly over-represented in such positions.
Encouraging more applications is a good start; however, it is not sufficient. Conservative ministers must ensure that they actively select appointees who share conservative values. If necessary they must be willing to use their existing powers to overrule officials’ advice and insist either on reopening applications, or appointing an otherwise qualified individual.
I am not suggesting that every appointee must be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory. There are many excellent individuals for whom their political views, whatever they may be, do not significantly impact their professional outlook or decisions. There may also be some exceptions: foreign policy, for example, is an area where left and right often agree and which therefore may allow cross-party appointments, as illustrated in art by President Santos’s appointment of Arnold Vinick as Secretary of State, or in life by the superb recent appointment of Gisela Stuart as Chair of Wilton Park. But in the main, to hand over large swathes off our economic and social landscape to those who are open Labour supporters, active in the left-wing union movement, or otherwise opponents of conservatism does great harm to our cause.
Dismantle New Labour’s left-wing policy laws
One of Blair and Brown’s most insidious legacies is the number of laws that enshrine a left-wing bias in our policy making. Little known by the general public, and often included as part of otherwise worthwhile Acts, such clauses force civil servants to couch their advice in the language of the Left; not due to bias on their part, but through rightful, dutiful adherence to the law of the land.
The Human Rights Act’s commandment that ministers must consider the human rights implication of any Bill brought before Parliament; the ‘Public Sector Equality Duty’ in the (otherwise positive) Equalities Act; the so-called ‘fair access’ regime in university admissions; and the exclusion of the UK’s national interest from the International Development: these laws, amongst others, create a policy framework in which left-wing views find fertile fruit more readily than conservative ones. The systematic amendment of such Acts is a vital part of restoring the civil service’s ability to genuinely provide objective, impartial advice to ministers.
The commanding heights of society
When Tony Blair revised Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution, it was taken as a sign that he had renounced Marx’s instruction for the state to take control of the commanding heights of the economy. Not only was this judgement premature, as Corbyn’s return to fully-fledged socialism demonstrates, we overlooked the way the left was establishing its dominance across society. If the Conservative party is to thrive in the twenty-first century, we must act now to reclaim the commanding heights of society for conservatism.