The problem with seeking modernity is that your target is always shifting. Modernity has a tricksy habit of becoming ever more modern.
When people describe themselves as modernisers, do they mean it literally, bringing the party and its policies up to date, or do they use the term as a totem for something else?
It’s clearly the latter.
Modern public opinion is not supportive of green taxes, for example – voters have more in common with those who want to cut “green crap” than the backbenchers who have lobbied David Cameron to maintain the green agenda.
Rather than representing the politics of here and now, modernising has become shorthand for other things – proactive support for green politics, but also, more negatively, a dislike and disdain for the Right of the party. Implicitly it brands everything that comes from the Right as outdated – despite the rightwards shift of the electorate (and particularly young voters) on issues like welfare or deficit reduction.
There probably was a time when moderniser politics were quite modern: I’d place it at some point between the 2001 General Election and the financial crisis.
2001 was the crucial psychological moment for those of a modernising bent. The crushing defeat in 1997 could be put down to the attrition of 18 years in power, the attraction of New Labour or the natural pendulum of politics.
But the 2001 defeat was attributed explicitly to the politics of the Right. Euroscepticism, in particular, was blamed for a defeat that actually had rather more to do with the popularity and effectiveness of Tony Blair.
Look at where the key figures of modernisation were at that time: as candidates, CCHQ advisers, pollsters, they were in the election trenches being endlessly shelled and machinegunned. Small wonder that it has made such a deep impression on them.
Like veterans of the Somme signing the Peace Pledge in the 1930s, it’s understandable that they don’t want anyone to have to relive their experience.
But, as modernisers ought to realise, times change. Even if 2001 was lost for the reasons they believe, 2015 will be a very different world.
The euroscepticism which they believed was out of touch with the people in 2001 is, after 12 more years of harmful integration, now mainstream. The green taxes that they thought people wouldn’t mind paying before the crash are now an unaffordable part of the cost of living crisis. Labour’s debt-fueled spending, which they pledged to match in order to reassure voters, are now almost universally rejected as reckless and damaging.
In short, it has turned out that many on the Right were ahead of their time, not stuck in the past.
That must be hard to swallow for some who truly believed that the modernity of the mid-2000s would stay modern forever. But it has passed, as the events and moods of any time inevitably do.
That’s not to say that everything is fine, of course not. The Conservative Party has serious reputation and trust problems among voters to whom we ought to appeal – that must still be addressed. But it is no longer as simple as saying “Vote Blue, Go Green”, if it ever was.
Success certainly cannot be achieved simply by vitriolic rejection of everything the Right might suggest.
A popular cry of modernisers is that elections are won in the centre. That is true, but there’s no use accepting it unless you also accept that centres can move.