With the opinion polls still neck-and-neck, David Cameron and the Conservative Party have good grounds to worry that they are not pulling ahead of Labour in the final month of the 2015 general election campaign.
The BBC’s poll of polls puts Labour and the Conservatives on 33% each, which, when constituency boundaries which favour the Labour Party are factored in, means that Ed Miliband’s party are potentially on course to win more seats than the Conservatives, throwing several highly unwelcome left-wing coalition scenarios into play.
Naturally, this is causing much hand-wringing both within the Conservative Party and the Tory-friendly press. But interestingly, much of the free advice being bandied about is encouraging the Conservatives to try to fight the election on Labour’s natural turf (such as emphasising the importance of public services), or to tack even further to the centre, in spite of UKIP’s challenge from the right.
The chief proponent of this strategy is Tim Montgomerie, who uses his most recent Times column (+) to argue that “a show of compassion” (whatever that means) from the Conservative Party could help to “swing the vote” in their favour. Montgomerie is absolutely correct in his diagnosis of the situation – an increasingly coddled, government-dependent British population representing unfertile electoral ground for the politics of individualism and self sufficiency – but hazy on his proposed remedy.
First, the good analysis:
The centre right has to worry that while Tony Blair was wooing Middle England it was really Gordon Brown who was running Britain. Blair was at the front of the shop but Brown was in the control room, overseeing the huge expansion in the number of people who received part or all of their income from the state. Even now, with austerity under way, 52 per cent of Britons receive more from the state than they pay in taxes. There are, to echo Mitt Romney’s infamous and ham-fisted description, more takers than makers. People who are dependent upon the state have every incentive to vote for bigger and bigger government and to get someone else to pay for it — especially, of course, “the rich”.
A redistributive, bash-the-rich message was exactly what helped Barack Obama defeat Governor Romney. If America, land of the free and home of the brave, was willing to choose big state interventionism over small state individualism then it’s hardly impossible that Britain might do the same in a few weeks’ time.
If ever there was a statistic to shock and shame British conservatives, it should be the fact that 52 percent of Britons are net financial beneficiaries from the state. In the conservative model society, there should be generous welfare support available for those suffering true hardship or disadvantage, but a level playing field and light-touch government regulations freeing everyone else to succeed to their potential.
The fact that more than half of us claim more in various benefits than we contribute through tax payments shows just how far away we are from achieving real conservative reform and freeing millions of people from a life of government dependency. There is simply no good reason why the majority of British people should require more financial support from the wealthiest taxpayers than they themselves contribute in taxes.
But Montgomerie is wrong when he pins the blame for the Tories’ unpopularity on an overzealous attachment to free markets and economic liberalism – or at least, he is wrong to suggest that conservatives stop talking about these fundamental principles when in fact we need to go out and evangelise about their virtues:
A successful conservative knows when to roll back the state and when to protect it. Leaving the NHS, the BBC and large parts of the welfare state untouched was probably at least as central to Margaret Thatcher’s electoral victories as the reforms to institutions, such as the City of London and the trade unions, that she did make.
I get the increasing impression that Mr Cameron understands all this. There was a time not so long ago when he was talking constantly about the need to win what he called “the global race”. The trouble with such talk is that we all know that races are hard work and that there are more losers than winners.
Today, Mr Cameron talks much more about security, rather than freedom and competition. “The security of knowing our economy and public finances are sound.” “The peace of mind and security of knowing your children are in a decent school.” The “security that comes with owning your own home”.
If Ed Miliband is to be stopped, the distorted idea of conservatism that has grown up among the people who today profess to be the true heirs of Thatcher has to be pushed back.
This blog has warned before that pursuing a watered-down form of “Coke Zero Conservatism” – the Tory brand you recognise, but with none of the calorific ideological content that gives it real oomph – is desperately short-sighted, both in terms of Cameron’s immediate electoral strategy but also in terms of what is best for Britain, a country crying out for decisive leadership and an escape from muddled political centrism.
As I wrote at the time of the Conservative Party spring conference:
The Conservative Party needs to let go of the unnecessary shame and embarrassment at their own beliefs and policies. Small government doesn’t mean cruelty, heartlessness or a lack of compassion for one’s fellow citizens – in fact, countless examples show that few organisations are capable of cruelty, abuse and neglect of a scale and severity as often achieved by the oversized British state. New leadership from the Conservative Party needs to acknowledge this, and dare to say so in public.
Reducing the size of the state (yes, even to levels “not seen since the 1930s“) can actually empower individuals and communities, done properly. Pushing responsibility and accountability away from central government can be a force for good and an instrument of positive change, as can setting our national ambitions slightly higher than hoping for decent public services.
But anything would be preferable to the option currently before us as we approach Election 2015: a tepid serving of Coke Zero Conservatism, masquerading as Diet Labour.
Tim Montgomerie is one of the smartest conservative commentators in Britain, and his Good Right project is a worthy effort to expand the appeal of a political party that now struggles to break through 36% of the national vote. Few could argue with most of the Good Right’s core principles:
1. Enterprise: Innovation and job creation drive material progress.
2. Respect: The highest form of charity is to give someone their independence.
3. Optimism: There has NEVER been a better time to be alive.
4. Virtue: The basis of democratic capitalism is provided by moral citizens.
5. Family: No social power counts for more than the love of parents for their children.
6. Responsibility: The State cannot love YOUR neighbour as well as YOU can.
7. Government: It is NOT the enemy.
8. Solidarity: A provision of a generous minimum income for those who can’t help themselves.
9 Rehabilitation: Let’s build the nation of the second chance.
10. Pragmatic: Neither socialist nor libertarian.
11. Modern: Traditional social institutions endure but there must be zero tolerance of violent behaviour, violent language or exclusion of gay people.
12. Transparency: See-through government is smaller, more effective government.
The optimism, the “happy warrior” mentality, the focus on individual responsibility and the importance of the family are all hugely welcome, as is the attempt to reaffirm support for traditional institutions while making clear that violent or discriminatory behaviour is unacceptable in our society. And the fact that “rehabilition” makes the list is a generous and welcome softening of the “sink or swim” idea that holds sway in America: yes, we should encourage responsibility and free people to succeed on their own, but we must also accept that with this freedom comes the possibility of failure, and be ready to help our fellow citizens when they fall on hard times.
When the likes of Tim Montgomerie scold David Cameron’s Conservative Party for failing to be sufficiently modern and inclusive, one has to take it seriously. And yet it should still be possible to create a Conservative Party and a society that meets the twelve principles of the Good Right, but which also takes a firm line on the rights of the individual, reducing the size of government, rewarding hard work and standing up for the nation state and fending off attacks from unaccountable international institutions such as the EU, which threaten to undermine it.
Tim Montgomerie seems to suggest that because the Conservatives have stopped talking about the Big Society, the environment and our sacred public services, the party has somehow lurched dramatically to the right. But this analysis overlooks multiple areas where the British political right has simply rolled over and accepted left-wing shibboleths as an indisputable fact of life.
How snarlingly Thatcherite can the coalition government be when they ringfenced education, healthcare and international development at the expense of reducing our budget deficit and maintaining a strong, credible military? David Cameron might not be talking about hugging a hoodie these days, but his party are only too happy to play into the Labour Party’s infantilising narrative which insists that we should all want to remain childishly dependent on public services forever, and hate anyone who threatens to take them away from us.
Truly radical, transformative political movements make a real effort to persuade and convert the public to their way of thinking – they don’t just make pointless cosmetic changes to adapt themselves to the prevailing national mood. When 52 per cent of British people are net recipients of state benefits, it is not enough for conservatives to stand by and let this go unchallenged, rationalising their inaction by pointing to the fact that the British people are addicted to big government.
Conservatives already know that Britain has a Big Government problem. And our task is not to change or water down our core belief in individual freedom and personal responsibility, just because the climate for our political views has been made inhospitable by years of failed centrism and creeping dependency on the state. Our job is to go out there and convince the British people that Britain is more than the sum of its public services, and that their own human potential is far greater than the value of whatever benefits or services they happen to receive from the government.
Will it be easy? Of course not – unlike Ed Miliband and the Labour Party, we do not have the luxury of droning on about “fairness” and “equality”, or promising that gold-standard public services for all can be achieved with just one more tax hike on millionaires, and then sitting back and watching the votes roll in. But we should not duck the challenge.
If his defence of The Good Right is anything to go by, Tim Montgomerie does not seem like the type to shy away from a fight. It is now time for David Cameron to prove that his heart is truly in this fight, and that he can offer a real conservative vision for Britain.
Cover Image: From the Twitter account of Marcus Chown, along with the text: “Retweet if you think David Cameron has fallen an incy-wincy bit short on this promise”