In a dictatorship, or in a quasi-democratic system with one-party rule for extended periods, political groupings cannot afford to fall out of favour. For example, in the late Ming Dynasty the eunuchs (through the Brocade Guards) and the scholars (through the Donglin academy) struggled for power, and falling from grace could mean arrest and execution. In such a setting, it can be vital to be willing to compromise on even deeply-held principle, simply in order to survive.
By contrast, one of the merits of democracy is supposed to be that, because it allows for the bloodless exchange of power, political groupings can offer their actual beliefs to the public, and when in office carry through their actual preferred policies in a consistent way. If their policies don't work out, or if they do work but the public doesn't like them, then the party is voted out and someone else gets a go – no hard feelings.
Thus, in a healthy democracy parties do not need to strive for power in quite the same way – losing power does not mean death. This is especially so if there is a robust constitution in place that limits the lasting damage that can be done by the other party. In essence, we all agree on some broad ground rules, and democratic politics focuses upon various details.
If we find our political parties more fixated on holding power than on implementing their beliefs, we need to ask why that has happened. Has the constitution broken down in some way that means parties fear that if they are out of power then the other party will make long-lasting changes that would undermine future change back? Has the common ground of politics broken down, such that parties cannot accept even brief periods of rule by the other side?
In Britain, something of this spirit seems to have emerged. The Labour Party seemed to believe that it was so important that it held power that it was prepared to have that power even at the expense of doing much that it believed in. The Conservative Party now seems to encounter a similar challenge. We seem to be devising our policy programme over a Parliament with a view to trying to (a) not falling from government until 2015; (b) winning the 2015 General Election. Why? Why isn't the right thing to do to pursue a programme we believe in, and then if the voters don't like us they'll choose someone else?
Doubtless such a simple idea strikes many readers as "naive". That is in itself odd, for at least three reasons. First, I thought a key aspect of Conservatism was supposed to be that our beliefs and policy approaches reflected the deep instincts of the British people and the natural plough-furrows of British life and the British way of doing things. So even if Britons did not always initially see the merits of our ideas, over time they would feel (even if they did not understand or articulate) that we were right. When did we stop believing that being Conservative was the best way of convincing the British public to vote Conservative? When did believing such a thing and espousing it become "naive"?
Second, when was the last time doing anything other than being Conservative won a General Election for the Conservative Party? I look back over electoral history and can identify lots of occasions (especially over the past three or four General Elections) when not being Conservative has lost General Elections. I don't recall it winning on any occasions. So why should one believe it would win in the future, and why should questioning whether it is the best way of winning be "naive"?
Third, why is it "naive" to believe that the voters are entitled to vote for someone else if they prefer someone else? I don't understand or recognise why it would or should be our task to give the voters what they want. That sounds to be like a Democrat proposition – as if what made policy legitimate was that it reflected The People's Will. I know that Blairites believed that – for them, focus groups were not simply devices for winning elections; they reflected political belief. But we are Conservatives, surely, and hence by definition not Democrats. If someone urges a Democrat belief upon me, and accuses me of being "naive" for rejecting it, I am inclined to shrug and say simply: one man's naivete is another man's different political startpoint.
Since I'm actually a Conservative and not a Democrat, I'm bemused by the idea that we should be devising policy with a view to getting re-elected. I say again: surely the right thing to do is to do what we believe to be right as Conservatives and then submit our actions to the judgement of the voters, confident that if we have indeed been Conservatives that should usually be enough.