Damian Green is a former First Secretary of State. He is Chair of the One Nation Caucus and MP for Ashford.
The cover of Labour’s Conference Guide this year is full of the usual upbeat (and of course impractical) promises: “More doctors and nurses”, “Free bus passes”, “Reduced class sizes”. You only have to turn the page to find what they really want to talk about-a distortion of what today’s Conservative is about.
The Welcome to Conference message contains a familiar dishonest litany. “The impact of almost ten years of Tory austerity is clear; in work poverty, Universal Credit, NHS Funding Cuts, regional inequality, and acts of malice like scrapping free TV licenses”……”We need a Government that will work for the common good, not just to reward the rich.”
Of course it’s unfair propaganda. The new element is that Corbyn’s Labour seeks constantly to make this attack personal. They want to create an atmosphere where every individual Tory must by definition be cruel and unfeeling, as well as rich and posh. From the “Never kissed a Tory” badges to Labour MPs saying they could never be friendly with Tory colleagues, the Labour attack is a calculated part of modern culture wars. The aim is not just short-term political advantage, but a long-term wish to make individuals who espouse Conservative values seem unfit for decent society. The more this attack succeeds, the more difficult it is for us to attract new supporters, particularly young supporters. So we have to refute it strongly and effectively.
As ever, the most effective argument follows the rule “show, don’t tell”. Throughout its history, the Conservative Party has been at the forefront of social reforms which have helped the poor and disadvantaged, flatly disproving the Labour thesis. Paul Goodman is writing a series of articles on ConHome this week showing this repeated phenomenon.
Modern history is equally full of evidence of this vital strain of Conservatism which seeks to bind society together by ensuring that no one is left behind. Some of the most neglected communities in the country in the early 1980s, from East London to Liverpool, have been utterly transformed by the practical energy displayed by Michael Heseltine. Where there was once dereliction and despair, there is now prosperity and hope, thanks to Conservative Governments.
The Environment is another issue where lazy or malevolent commentators assume the left must have the best tunes. In fact, the first prominent British politician to realise its central importance was Margaret Thatcher. Bringing the story more up to date, David Cameron was equally seized of its importance (at least in his younger, more idealistic days). We still remember the huskies. The current Conservative Government will certainly continue this honourable tradition, and we should all publicly proclaim it. Vote Blue Go Green should be a slogan for the ages.
We should also be relentless in pointing out how the children of poorer households have benefitted from Conservative education reforms over recent years. All of this was outweighed by the anger of teachers at the last general election over spending levels during the period of austerity, so it is very important that the extra spending that will be made in schools in the coming years is accompanied by a continuing commitment to reform. For example, Michael Gove’s Free Schools are a great innovation which would certainly be killed by a Labour Government.
Equally, for all of its teething problems we can be proud of Universal Credit. The best argument for how it is helping benefit recipients is the historically low level of unemployment. The fact that it is always better to work, and always better to work longer hours, is the biggest single change in the benefit system since Beveridge, and it is good news for those on benefits as well as for the general health of society. Work is always the best long-term route out of poverty, and we should happy to argue with the Left on this point.
So we are able to show numerous examples where practical Conservative policies are hard-headed but not remotely hard-hearted. By contrast, they are helping people who have no advantages make the most of themselves and share in rising prosperity. Now we have moved out of the period of austerity this is an easier argument to make, so we can be more aggressive in calling out Labour’s attempts to demonise all of us.
At the same time, we must be vigilant in not giving Labour the chance to claim that the moderate Conservative tradition is in danger. This is not the article in which to discuss in detail the removal of the Whip from some of my colleagues, but it is absolutely the place to remind us all that the One Nation tradition is a central part of conservatism, and its underlying insight that the Conservative duty is to bind society together is more important than ever in these troubled times.
The biggest task for any Conservative is to convince a dubious electorate that properly regulated capitalism is the best system both for creating wealth and for spreading it fairly. We will need the maximum number of supporters, and the full breadth of all Conservative traditions to make this argument with force. At a time when Labour is determined to convince the non-political majority that Conservatives are basically evil, it is more important than ever that we demonstrate on a daily basis that we are the normal, decent majority in this country.
Even in the short term we should remember that the Liberal Democrats attract some normally Conservative voters in the same way that the Brexit Party does. We need to be careful on both our flanks. A strategy of delivering Brexit and simultaneously demonstrating that we can improve public services to the benefit of everyone is not just the best approach for the coming election, but the most convincing way of dismissing the Labour smear about our underlying motives.