Robert Halfon is a former Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, is MP for Harlow, and is honorary President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
On Tuesday, David Cameron spoke about the continued need for modernisation of the Conservative party. He was right, especially in the sense that a modernisation that takes place at a certain period, cannot be preserved in aspic. The whole purpose of successful political parties is to continue to evolve in order to adapt to changing times.
Perhaps to use a more conservative way of describing this: we need to change what is necessary in order to conserve what is best.
However, the agreement that we need as a party to continually modernise, is much easier than to work out what form of modernisation that should take.
During the Cameron years – especially in opposition – modernisation appeared primarily focused on the middle classes and younger metropolitan professionals who had become disenchanted with a Tory party they saw as reactionary and too hard-nosed. So, this meant a boost for social liberalism, environmentalism, and, where possible avoiding the subject of Europe and immigration. To develop the compassionate side, the answer was increased overseas aid and the ‘Big Society’. Of all these, the Big Society was both an attempt to explain the ‘little platoons’ philosophy of conservatism – emphasising that conservatism did have a compassionate heart and cared as much about social capital as economic capital.
Despite success in opposition, winning important by-elections like Crewe and Norwich North, significant numbers of councils, and gaining many Parliamentary seats at the 2010 election, the Conservatives still failed to get a clear majority and ended up in coalition with the Liberals.
It was at this time that the modernisation project came under question – with the argument being that the modernisation seesaw had tilted too far in favour of metropolitan types and not enough towards Blue Collar and White Van conservatives. In the early days, sometimes there was a mistaken belief that if you were not in favour of every part of ‘The Project’ it just meant that you were against all forms of change and reform and were just from the reactionary right.
The seesaw tilted in the opposite direction as there came an understanding that the Conservative Party had to appeal as much to workers in Stevenage as young professionals in Battersea.
So, in came the fuel duty freeze, lower taxes for lower earners, the investment in millions of apprenticeships, and perhaps most important of all, the National Living Wage. The NLW was a powerful and counter-intuitive statement about our values – helping those on lower incomes, and showing all parts of the country that we were the party of workers. Alongside all this, came a pledge for an EU Referendum.
With the arrival of Theresa May as Prime Minister, her powerful speech on the steps of Downing Street about “a Britain that works for everyone”, inspired many. It firmly put the modernisation seesaw in favour of workers party Conservatism. The problem being of course was that, for one reason or another, much of this got lost in the post-manifesto election campaign. The modernisation seesaw was on neither one side or the other.
What is there to learn from all this?
First, that a ‘back to the future’ to modernisation circa 2005 is not the answer to all our difficulties, but neither is a return to ‘Keep the Pound’ circa 1997, primarily focusing on Brexit.
Second – and I say this as a huge proponent of Workers’ Conservatism – we won’t win if we take the attitude that as long as we succeed in working class marginal seats, it does not matter if Conservatives do badly in London or the other great cities. The argument goes like this: ‘the demographics are just not going our way’. Not only is this wrong, it is defeatist – no area should be thought of as not natural Tory territory. Until we can straddle both, we will never get a healthy majority.
Third, Conservatives have to somehow create a fusion of policies that appeal both to workers’ conservatism and metropolitan types. I described the National Living Wage, apprenticeships and lower taxes as some examples above. Add strong support for the NHS and other essential public services. I am sure ConservativeHome readers can come up with some others.