Yesterday I spoke at Labour’s Progress conference. I accepted the invitation before I knew my slot would clash with Arsenal V Man Utd and I had to reject the offer of a ticket for the game. Never mind! The invitation to address the workshop came in mid-August. The topic: "Is the Cameron effect wearing thin?" It was delicious to hear most of my fellow panellists admit that the title was now somewhat out-of-date.
My fellow panellists were: MORI’s Julia Clark (very straight in her thoughtful presentation), Margaret Hodge MP (who, off-message, complained about NHS targets), The Guardian’s Martin Kettle (very impressive man) and Nottingham University’s Mark Stuart (a real freethinker).
One of the most interesting parts of our hour together concerned whether or not the Conservative Party had really changed under David Cameron. Hodge led the suggestion that it hadn’t and claimed that David Cameron’s recent alleged remarks at the Arts Council about one-legged, Lithuanian lesbians were proof that the party was fundamentally the same. Platform10 posted an unhelpful piece yesterday talking about "headbanging" from the Tory leadership. I genuinely have no idea what the author, Fiona Melville, was talking about.
There are a number of solid reasons to believe that the party has changed and changed sustainably. Here are five top indicators:
- Top of my list would be David Cameron’s commitment to social justice. IDS’ social justice report was superb. Labour may not like it but the centre right is doing the interesting thinking on welfare today. See this week’s Spectator cover story. Michael Howard more or less dumped IDS’ social justice agenda. It’s centre stage under David Cameron.
- Traditional issues may be back on the agenda after the recent "rebalancing" but they’re not back in a Michael-Howard-kind-of-a-way. Trevor Phillips wouldn’t have praised Howard’s approach to immigration. On crime there’s more understanding of the conveyor belt to crime. On Europe there’s real Euroscepticism but less Little Britain-ism and more wanting to be a global player.
- Selected candidates are more diverse – 30% are women and if we win a majority at the next General Election there could be fifty to sixty women on the Tory benches.
- The Conservative Party’s tone is very different. David Cameron can reach Waitrose voters in a way that Michael Howard (does it sound like I’m picking on him?!) never could. That’s why Nigel Hastilow’s intervention was so unfortunate for the reasons expressed by ‘Common Sense‘.
- The party has embraced the expectation of gay adults to enjoy full respect from society. There are two openly gay members of the shadow cabinet.
So, real "progress"… but enough? No. On candidates there was too much focus on gender and skin colour – not enough on diversity of life experience. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson is right about welfare reform. Things are moving in the right direction but I’d like to see more beef.
On some change issues I’d like to see much, much deeper change. A party that was really serious about international justice would be talking about UN reform. We’re not. In fact we hardly have a foreign policy. Cameron has been to Darfur but there’s no sense of a deep commitment. I hated the fact that, last week, the LibDems led the charge against Saudi Arabia and we were pretty much silent.
Progressive conservatism is still the philosophy I’d like to see at the heart of our party. It was my passion before ConservativeHome became something of a protest vehicle against ‘BC Cameron”s imbalanced failure to talk about bread’n’butter issues (BC – that’s Before Coulson). This site has always been about ‘the politics of and’ and will continue to be so.
PS You’ll note I haven’t mentioned the environment as proof of Cameron’s "change". In my opinion there’s been little authenticity to Cameron’s greenery. It’s not just the chauffeur following the bike. There’s been the many domestic flights and the foreign holidays. I have nothing against domestic flights and foreign holidays but Cameron can’t discourage the rest of the country from taking them and then take them himself. The Tories should be conservationists – are conservationists – but of the kind outlined by John Redwood – not the Gummer-Goldsmith types.