If any more evidence were needed (and at this point it really shouldn’t be) that embracing “compassionate conservatism” is not the answer to the Tories’ problems, then a new piece by Abi Wilkinson mocking their efforts at rebranding should make things clear.
Wilkinson writes in Total Politics:
Since the recent general election, there has been a noticeable upswing in the number of Conservatives fretting about inequality, material hardship and issues with the current economic system.
[..] At some level, it’s gratifying to see an increased willingness amongst right-wingers to admit that things are not currently alright. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be frustrated that these conversations are only happening now – when the left is in resurgence and appears a viable political force. If they’re capable of seeing these issues, why didn’t they say something sooner? Why have they been happy to cheerlead governments that have overseen massive increases in homelessness and child poverty, underfunding of public services, the erosion of employment rights and growing income inequality?
The biggest issue with this sudden surge of compassionate conservatism, however, is the failure to identify real solutions to the stated problems.
The moment that conservatives start waffling on about compassion is the moment that we start fighting on Labour’s terrain and lose the war. The parties of the Left have already convinced a huge swathe of the electorate that compassionate conservatism is an oxymoron:
Any time that conservatives try to frame their pitch to the electorate in terms of compassion or any of the other paternalistic buzzwords used by the Left, voters will simply ask why they should pick the Tories when Labour is offering the full-fat version of socialism.
If anything, conservatives should attack the Left’s lazy, self-serving definition of compassion, which largely consists of assuming that half the population belongs to a perpetual victim class in need of constant nourishment, assistance and succour from the state; that parking people on welfare and forgetting about them is somehow a sign of love and solidarity; that tearing down the wealthy through punitive taxation will do anything to improve the material circumstances of the poor; that interfering with free markets, the greatest engine of wealth creation available, will somehow protect consumers.
The term “virtue-signalling” is becoming quite overused (not least on this blog), but it really does apply to much left-wing policy-making, where what matters most is to be seen to be taking action against some social injustice or inequity rather than coming up with sustainable policies to attack those problems in the long-term. We need to start making this point more forcefully, pointing out that it is in fact evil to do what feels good and conscience-soothing today if it only perpetuates or exacerbates a problem further down the road (see the Left’s sanctimonious outrage when it was proposed that migrant boats heading to Europe be stopped and sent back – by thwarting this policy, hundreds if not thousands more people have drowned, just so that leftists could look compassionate on Twitter).
For too long, conservatives have been content to portray themselves as rational and dispassionate administrators of the machinery of state, making difficult but necessary decisions in the name of fiscal rectitude (not that this rhetoric ever carried through into action – see the persistent budget deficit and rising national debt). And in so doing, the Right has repeatedly ceded the language of morality, of right and wrong, to the parties of the Left, who are only too happy to run with it and paint themselves as having a monopoly on virtue.
This approach won’t cut it any more. To halt the advance of Jeremy Corbyn, a party leader who actually has principles (however misguided and odious some of them may be) and the courage to defend his beliefs in public, conservatives need to start talking in the same self-assured language of right and wrong. Pointing out the unworkability of socialist policies is insufficient – we need to make the moral case for why cranking up the size of the state and making more people dependent on the government is bad for everybody. We need to become more comfortable speaking in the language of good vs evil – which people understand and respond to – rather than the dry, technical language of financial feasibility.
But more than anything, we conservatives must stop apologising for our belief in smaller government and individual liberty. Our stance should not be that Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left policies would be wonderful if only the magic money tree actually existed. Rather, we should make the case that even if we could afford to implement the Labour manifesto it would have negative impacts on incentives to work, invest and be self-reliant. We have to fight fire with fire.
That’s not to say that the conservatives should not come up with compelling policies to offset the negative consequences of globalisation and automation, some of the most pressing medium term issues we face – of course we should. But we should also explain that the Left’s perpetual fallback of waving their magic wand and creating an expensive new government programme to solve every issue is the wrong way to go – that if we are actually to bind ourselves more closely together as a nation we need to reinvigorate civil society rather than continually undermining it with big government.
Will it be difficult to change our messaging? Absolutely. But as Theresa May can attest, our current method of engaging the electorate isn’t exactly delivering great returns (yes, you can argue that the Tories received their highest vote share in many years, but this doesn’t really matter when conservatives are effectively fighting against a coalition of all the parties of the Left and can’t muster a Commons majority on 42% of the vote).
Chasing after the Labour Party on a race to the Left will not work. If voters want socialism, they’ll choose the real thing. And waffling on about compassionate conservatism will only evoke scorn from commentators like Abi Wilkinson, and provide an easy opening for the Left to virtue-signal all over again.
If the Tories want to actually be in power rather than merely in office, a new approach is required. One which involves more courage and less appeasement.
My longer essay on why embracing compassionate conservatism will not make the Tories more popular is here.
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