Don’t Expect The Independent Group To Rescue Britain’s Broken Politics

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Chuka Umunna? Former choirboy, but most definitely not the Messiah…

In my limited spare time since commencing law school, I have been attending a wonderful Bible study group for graduate students, organized by the university’s Catholic Student Center. Having plodded our way methodically through the New Testament, last week we reached the Book of Revelation and alighted on the topic of the Antichrist – antichrists being false prophets preaching a deceptive gospel, and also a specific figure cloaked in seeming holiness and authority, whose arrival would presage the second coming of Christ.

In other, totally unrelated news, British politics seems to have been roiled in my absence by the defection of eight Labour and three Conservative MPs from their respective parties to form a flashy new association called The Independent Group. In selecting a spokesperson for their group, the breakaway MPs nominated Chuka Umunna, the ex-Labour politician best known for describing himself as Britain’s Barack Obama. As we shall see, this was a revealing choice – elevating a man who models himself on the US president who promised hope and change, delivered the former in spades back in 2008 but so little of the latter by 2016 that the people elected Donald Trump as his successor.

The cast list of TIGgers (yes, they actually call themselves that) on the ex-Labour side is a veritable who’s who of frustrated New Labourite centrists whose slick career ambitions have been put into stasis since Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party and wholesale rejection of the Blairite/Brownite technocratic tendency (though some credit must be given to MPs such as Luciana Berger, who also had cause to flee the appalling, metastasizing antisemitism within Corbyn’s hard left faction). On the ex-Tory side, we have the likes of Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry, politicians whom one would never have guessed to be conservative in the first place but for the fact that they campaigned wearing a blue rosette during general election season.

The TIGgers had a number of justifications for their decision to leave their former parties (though notably, none had the courage to call a by-election and allow their constituents to positively affirm their presence in Parliament under a new party affiliation). Those coming from the Labour Party repeatedly stressed the antisemitism continually exhibited by those close to Jeremy Corbyn and tolerated by the Labour leadership, though their claims that it was the deciding factor fail the credibility test since antisemitism on the hard left and ultra-progressive wings of the Labour Party is hardly a new and surprising issue. More telling is ex-Labour Mike Gapes’ bitter complaint that “the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit” – the idea that the Labour Party might support a policy popular among the party’s traditional voter base being too much for him to comprehend. Meanwhile, ex-Tory MPs like Anna Soubry complained about prime minister Theresa May’s dogged approach to Brexit and what they called the party’s reliance on the Hard Brexit fundamentalist ERG group of MPs and a takeover of the party by “right-wing, hard line anti-EU” forces.

All of this was covered portentously and near-reverentially by a Westminster journalistic class who tend to jump at any opportunity to breathlessly report on personalities instead of policy (the details of Brexit still eluding many of them) and which is near-uniformly progressive in socio-economic ideology and stridently anti-Brexit in particular. Thus we were treated to gushing hot takes by the likes of ex-PM Tony Blair (“embrace the spirit of insurgency!“), a Guardian journalist overcome with admiration as these courageous rebels dined at Nando’s, The Scotsman (which swats away inconvenient observations such as the fact that “they have no vision, coherent policy platform or leader”) and readers of the hateful EU propaganda rag The New European, who are desperate for the TIGgers not to subject themselves to by-elections and the indignity of seeking democratic approval of their party betrayal.

Naturally, all of this praise has gone to the TIGgers’ heads, and what started as an act of pure political calculation has now become in their minds an almost heroic declaration of political independence and bold purpose. Hence self-aggrandizing pronouncements such as this:

Heidi Allen thinks that “the two big parties [are] demonstrating more and more every day that they are not up to the challenges facing our country”. This is the same Heidi Allen who campaigned under the Conservative Party banner without a whisper of complaint in 2015 and 2017, maneuvering hard to get that coveted initial constituency selection in the first place.

And here is The Independent Group’s London branch, acting as though it is an oasis of reason in a desert of conformist thinking:

You would think that a brand new political party – a group whose ranks are filled with MPs who had the supposed “courage” to quit their parties and risk the wrath of their constituents because of their overriding concern about the country’s direction – would be positively fizzing with alternative policy ideas and solutions to the national problems they quietly tracked for so long before making their big move. You would be wrong.

But that’s fine. Maybe TIG is understandably reticent to commit themselves by announcing headline policies at this early stage, while they are still trying to woo other potential defectors and grow in strength. We should, though, still be able to parse a sense of what this radical new party stands for by analyzing the famous speeches and policy initiatives of its star members, right? “Oh, Bob? He’s the one who wants to create a network of community colleges to retrain people whose old careers are under threat from globalization and automation.” “Rachel? Isn’t she the one who called for a national Apollo Program for education, criticizing Britain for shooting for the middle with education outcomes and exhorting us to catch up with world leaders like South Korea and Finland?” “Rupert has a great plan for constitutional reform to bring government closer to the people and make leaders more accountable”. “Ayesha actually had the courage to reject calls for her to post a public love-letter to the NHS on Valentine’s Day, saying that we need to stop deifying the healthcare service and look to other countries for examples of best practice”.

Again, tumbleweeds. The British political firmament as a whole is hardly blessed with a multitude of bold, original thinkers, and such figures certainly aren’t among the fabulous seven, the daring eleven or whatever number of forgettable non-entities currently comprise The Independent Group.

All of which is a great pity. As this blog has noted over and over and over and over and over and  over again, Britain has entered a period of political discontinuity – a time when the existing political settlement, with its narrow range of policy options, are no longer adequate to the challenges at hand. Such periods of discontinuity require politicians to think the previously unthinkable in terms of policy solutions, not to flee their former political parties in an outrage that people are actually starting to do so.

As described in the influential Stepping Stones report:

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

So what is The Independent Group’s grand unified theory for fixing Britain? Besides thwarting Brexit, they don’t have one. But they did roll out their very first policy initiative with tremendous fanfare:

Today we launched a petition calling for an end to the Government’s four-year freeze on working age benefits. Ending the freeze on working age benefits would lift 200,000 people – who are working, but struggling to make ends meet – out of poverty.

We believe that all policy should be evidence-based, especially when that policy affects some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

There’s no reason to persist with the final year of the freeze, especially when the past three years significantly exceeded the savings originally envisaged.

Is this the best that the courageous breakaway radical thinkers of British politics can do -a feel-good policy about relaxing benefit freezes? As part of a broader overhaul of welfare policy, this may indeed be a valid and “evidence-based” approach. But The Independent Group have not conducted any such broader review of the welfare system; they simply cherry-picked the low-hanging policy fruit designed to appeal to middle income swing voters, without any consideration of the knock-on effects on public finances, incentives to work or anything else. There’s certainly no bold leadership here, no telling difficult truths to the public about necessary trade-offs in public spending.

Indeed, The Independent Group will not be able to formulate meaningful policy on any number of issues, welfare included, being comprised of defector MPs from opposite parties with different views on the subject. If the party is to survive for any length of time, it would have to strike a balance between the ex-Labour and ex-Tory factions, and would likely produce policies almost identical to any government or opposition which sought to woo the same swing voters by meeting them where they are (rather than doing the much harder – but necessary – job of convincing them that they, too, need to update their thinking about what is both desirable and politically feasible).

Contra Heidi Allen’s complaint that the two main parties are “not up to the challenges facing our country”, The Independent Group exists precisely because the two main parties were captured by forces which seek to overturn the “old established politics” – Labour by the Corbynites with their faith in 1970s-style, red-blooded socialism and the Tories by the ultra free trade zealots of the ERG (though on non-Brexit matters, the Tory Party remains as uninspiringly centrist and authoritarian as it ever was – a fact which Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston should have valued, given the fact that they emblemize that sentiment within the party). The two big parties may not yet be responding to this period of discontinuity the right way, but both are shifting their thinking. It is The Independent Group who seek to stand athwart history, yelling “stop!”.

These are not People of Action, bristling at the stultifying ideological confines of their former parties. Rather, they are Captains of Inaction, career machine politicians who thrived on the Old Politics – that comforting bygone era when New Labour would be nanny statist and indulge centre-left interventionist tendencies as the Tories accused them of socialism on steroids, while the Tories would be ever so slightly less nanny statist and interventionist as Labour screamed that they were a libertarian Ayn Rand dystopian outfit made flesh.

However much they may strut and preen, the TIGger MPs are not frustrated free thinkers yearning to push the boundaries of the Overton Window in British politics or advocate for daring new solutions to the problems we face in the early 21st century – they are establishment refugees seeking a lifeboat to take them back to the New Labour, centrist consensus of the 1990s and 2000s. The root of their discontent is not the fact that British politics has become stale and conformist – their anger stems from the fact that the two main political parties have reacted to voter dissatisfaction by moving in direction which reduces their own personal influence (and/or hopes of future high office).

Pete North, welcoming what he sees as the death of centrism, puts it better than me:

Progressivism (whatever that actually means) has become a byword for sanitised cellophane wrapped politics which produces the androgynous clones like Chuka Umunna designed for maximum media inoffensiveness. Like Ken dolls one wonders if these people even possess genitalia. The political version of morning TV magazine show presenters. And as repellent as they are, these people don’t actually know anything.

This much has been made abundantly clear during the course of Brexit. They have no idea why we voted to leave, and no idea how we got where we are, or indeed how to get ourselves out of it. Instead of seeking to understand what is upon us, they have invested all of their energies into sweeping Brexit under the carpet with a view to going back to their consequence free normality where they soak up media attention but take on none of the responsibilities and obligations.

It is telling that the new Independent Group have elected to promote themselves on a handful of recycled populist slogans. They speak of a “different way of doing things” under the “ChangePolitics” hashtag, with all the self-awareness of a diarrhetic hippo. Chris Leslie in all seriousness went on BBC Question Time to tell us “The big political parties want to keep everything as it is” when this bunch are the very essence of the establishment – the rotting corpse of centrism.

Frustration with Britain’s dysfunctional politics is quite understandable, and the growing realization that something has broken beyond repair is encouraging to witness. But to see in the cast of The Independent Group anything resembling salvation from our problems is to put one’s faith in a false prophet.

The politicians who made headlines by flouncing out of their respective political parties aren’t preaching a bold new gospel which the country can get behind. They aren’t currently preaching a message of any kind at all, beyond a furious opposition to Brexit and the inchoate yearning for a return to the time when uttering bland platitudes about Tory heartlessness or Labour profligacy was all it took to sustain one’s political career. If anything, these are avowedly Old Testament politicians, furious with incomprehension that their message no longer resonates in New Testament Britain.

As a general rule of life, it it looks too good to be true, it probably is. The Independent Group doesn’t even manage to look good on cursory examination, but even if one finds oneself falling for their polished Twitter hashtags about changing politics, the point remains that given the rather pitiful raw material at their disposal, The Independent Group’s promise of political renewal is indeed too good to be true – no matter how strongly one wishes that Chuka Umunna and his unlikely gang were the real deal.

 

Antichrist

The Independent Group

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Conservative Party Policy Renewal: 1000 Ways To Die Trying

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Rather than attempting to forge a compelling, coherent vision for Britain rooted in conservative values, our dithering Prime Minister is soliciting a thousand disjointed policy suggestions from every vested interest and armchair crank in the nation. This is not leadership.

Having been on the road since 14 March of this year, I confess that I presently find myself semi-detached from the day-to-day granular developments in British politics. I note the headlines and observe the main spectacles as they occur – this week it seems to be another Cabinet showdown about Brexit and the planned “Rite of Spring” style frenzied celebration of the NHS on its 70th birthday, complete with the worshipping of false idols at Westminster Abbey and perhaps enough human sacrifices to make even the mass murderers at Gosport Hospital seethe with envy – but otherwise have been forced to tune out the smaller procedural stories which, taken together, give the truest indication of where we are heading.

It is dispiriting, therefore, to tune back in this week and discover that the Conservative Party remains every bit as ideologically lost, rudderless and without leadership as it was when I flew from Heathrow Airport nearly four months ago, particularly since the fractious nature of British politics could see any more Tory missteps usher in a Corbynite Labour government and a chaotic, uncontrolled Brexit – two economic calamities both alike in indignity, one slow-burning and the other all too immediate.

At this point, I can scarcely bring myself to repeat the warnings that this blog has been making with increasing alarm (and clarity) for the past six years – that chasing Labour to the left and disowning/apologising for small government conservative principles is political folly, and that the period of discontinuity in which we now find ourselves – where the old political settlement neither adequately addresses our contemporary problems nor commands widespread public support – requires coherent vision and ambitious policymaking from our political elites, not more of the same old demos-phobic technocracy.

At this point I have warned of the urgent need for new Conservative policymaking which neither seeks to mimic statist Labour paternalism or reheat individualist 1980s Thatcherism, and have cheered on those few brave efforts to seed the Tory Party with new ideas – most notably George Freeman MP’s “Big Tent” initiative.

But it has become increasingly clear to me that the Conservative Party cannot save itself, that much of the heavy lifting will have to be done by people not beholden to the existing party power structure (and quite possibly outside of politics altogether), just as it took external voices to commandeer a 1970s Tory Party still stubbornly clinging to a failed socialist post-war settlement. Unfortunately, it has also become equally clear that the required external voices are not at all welcome, that “conservative reform” is seen by those in power as little more than a cosmetic exercise whereby people within the existing Tory ecosystem sit around reciting platitudes at one another.

Until this week. Now, it seems, Theresa May has decided to go in an altogether different direction. From the Telegraph:

Theresa May has launched an appeal for MPs, peers and party members to submit 1,000 policy ideas to form the basis of the Conservative party’s bid to win the next general election.

The Prime Minister has announced she has set up a new Conservative Policy Commission in the biggest overhaul of the party’s policy thinking in more than a decade, personally appealing to Brexit voters in particular to offer up their own ideas.

The new Commission, chaired by Chris Skidmore MP, has been charged with developing the ideas in time for the Tory party conference next year.

The next general election is expected in 2022 but the relatively short timetable means Mrs May will be presented with a ready-made policy platform if she chooses to call an early election in the months after Britain quits the European Union next year.

So from having almost taken a perverse pride in her government’s lack of direction or urgency for change, Theresa May is now seeking the oddly specific number of 1000 new policy ideas, even deigning to consider contributions from (relatively) ordinary people.

And how is this new Policy Commission intended to work?

Each task force will be asked to answer 20 policy questions set by Mr Skidmore with 10 separate policy ideas, to give the party 1,000 new ideas for consideration in the final policy report.

[..] Evidence will be gathered at meetings in towns and cities in every region around the country, with an interim report ready for summer next year and the final document published at the party’s 2019 conference.

The long-sickening optimist within me would like to think that some good might emerge from this exercise, even though a policy review seeking only answers to highly specific, pre-ordained questions is unlikely to produce many truly radical or disruptive ideas. However, the realist within me – whose low expectations have been repeatedly vindicated – suspects that this is nothing more than a Tony Blair-style cosmetic New Labour performance spectacle, that the task forces themselves will somehow end up stuffed full of the same Westminster bubble-dwellers you always see at London think tank events, and that if any genuinely bold policy emerges from the mess it will be met with polite interest and then disappeared down the memory hole.

But worse than that, by announcing this initiative Theresa May is veering from one extreme to another – from having solicited policy and strategic advice from only a small and insular circle of loyal sycophants to encouraging everyone in the land to start shouting ideas or promoting their personal pet projects at the same time. Rather than stepping back and attempting to forge a compelling, coherent vision for Britain rooted in conservative values, our dithering Prime Minister is now soliciting disjointed contributions from every vested interest and armchair crank in the nation. This is not leadership.

Back in November of 2017 I attempted to outline the approach which a Conservative government should be taking toward necessary policy renewal, beginning by quoting the influential 1977 Stepping Stones Report:

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

I then laid out a case arguing that we find ourselves in a similar moment of political discontinuity today, with new challenges producing the same frustrations and political sclerosis we witnessed during the national decline of the 1970s. For all his flaws, Jeremy Corbyn recognises that we are in a period of discontinuity and is promoting radical left-wing policies in tune with the moment. By contrast, the Conservatives seem terrified to articulate any kind of bold vision at all, and risk being correctly perceived as the party of the status quo.

Hence my final recommendation:

We need a new Stepping Stones Report for our times. We need a comprehensive and dispassionate analysis of the problems we face as a country, and understand where and how they are linked together. Having diagnosed these problems (which in the case of many politicians many involve some painful introspection) we must decide where we want to go as a country – what we realistically want Brexit Britain to look like in 2020, 2025, 2030 and beyond – and then devise a programme of mutually supporting, politically feasible policies to get us there, and a way of framing and communicating this programme that can unite a sufficient amount of our fractured country to earn an electoral mandate.

It may be noted that many of the issues we face today – globalisation, automation, migration, terrorism – span national borders and can not be solved by any one country alone. This is not a concession to angry Remainers who naively view the European Union as the ultimate platform for all international cooperation, but it is a statement of fact. This means that for the first time in decades – since the Second World War, really – Britain must lift its eyes above our own domestic concerns and seek to use our position on the world stage to promote and coordinate the adoption of the new solutions we devise. Having voted for Brexit and upended our politics, embracing the discontinuity which most other countries still ignore, we are the canaries in the coal mine and other nations will look to us to see how they might navigate the same issues. For once, rather than lowering our national ambitions and ducking a challenge we must rise to the occasion.

I still believe that this idea, or some variant of it, is the only surefire way for Britain to identify, acknowledge and overcome our present challenges. In principle, a Conservative Policy Commission could be a good idea, particularly one which pays particular attention to the aspirations and concerns of those areas of the country which voted to leave the European Union. But demanding 1000 fresh ideas and then frantically sorting through them, trying to weld together a new draft manifesto in time for the 2019 Tory party conference, is not going to result in anything coherent or sufficiently inspirational to make people positively want to vote Conservative. At best it looks gimmicky, and at worst it serves as a Trojan horse for multitudes of self-serving vested interest policy to find an unwitting champion in government.

Put simply, you cannot solicit 1000 random ideas and successfully pick through them in order to arrive at a compelling programme for government. What’s needed is an earnest attempt to identify, describe and measure the challenges, threats and opportunities facing Britain – be it automation, outsourcing, migration, productivity, education or national security – and then identify the linkages and interdependencies between them. Only on the strength of this bedrock of analysis can new policy ideas be properly evaluated to determine whether they are both politically feasible and adequate to the challenge at hand.

Any such approach would require something between the traditional insular elitism of the political class and the slap-happy populism of Theresa May’s latest initiative, inviting unfiltered ideas without any clear basis on which to evaluate them. Strong government involves making trade-offs and necessary compromises in pursuit of a greater good; Theresa May’s proposed policy commission risks being nothing more than retail politics at its worst, promising all things to all people and disappointing everybody in the process.

I wish that things looked more optimistic for the Conservative Party and for the country, but from my current perch here in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I see only a weak and dithering prime minister who thinks that conservative policy renewal is little more than a cosmetic exercise, or even worse, a political game to be played. All those Conservative activists working diligently to come up with new ideas are not well served by a CCHQ and leadership which bypasses their efforts and seeks an arbitrary 1000 new ideas simply because someone in 10 Downing Street thought that it would make a good headline.

Here in the United States, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to Donald Trump in part because her campaign was never able to satisfactorily or compellingly explain why she wanted to be president beyond the personal satisfaction of having her hands on the levers of power. In Britain, the Conservative Party has been in power for the better part of a decade, most of it without offering voters any kind of positive vision (let alone a granular strategy) for strengthening the country. With Jeremy Corbyn now offering a clear contrast and a very different vision for Britain, the Tories no longer have the luxury of being dull, dismal and technocratic.

Neither the Conservative Party nor the country needs 1000 wacky new policy ideas at this difficult juncture, or any other quick-fix solution proposed by Theresa May. Right now we simply need one leadership-supported policy renewal initiative which might plausibly deserve to be called “strategic”, and a leader who aspires to something more than just remaining in office.

This really shouldn’t be asking too much. At one time, strategic thinking and purposeful leadership were baseline expectations, not wistful pipe-dreams. We have fallen a long way in a relatively short span of time.

I close with this pertinent warning from the Stepping Stones report:

In discontinuity, conventional wisdom cannot get us out of the problems. Indeed, innovation is almost certainly the best way through discontinuity. Almost any vision, any programme, is better than confusion and uncertainty, for it can at least be modified in the light of experience, once it has broken the paralysing spell of past failure and present pessimism.

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Conservative Renewal: A Glimmer Of Light In The Darkness At CPS

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Faint signs of optimism for the future of British conservatism, and an opportunity to pitch Stepping Stones 2022

The other day, after hitting “publish” on another one of my increasingly repetitive blog posts pressing the case for positive renewal within the British conservative movement, a friend had this to say about me:

Billions of years from now, when the last proton decays and the wailing of AC Grayling can no longer be heard, the final sound in the Universe will be Sam saying he can still save the Tories.

A fair point, amusingly made. Quite possibly through sheer ignorance of political machinations combined with my lonely position on the outer, outer, outer periphery of Westminster life, I am imbued with a natural optimism which tells me that however far the Conservative Party may stray from the path of visionary, principled government, there is always a way back.

An annoying voice in the back of my head keeps insisting that just as with the “twitch upon the thread” in Brideshead Revisited, the Conservative Party can wander to the edge of the world under the non-leadership of Theresa May and yet still eventually be brought back to the faith – though I’m not delusional, and also accept the possibility that eventual outcome may be rather less optimistic:

 

Others in my circle have understandably given up hope and effectively adopted a “let it burn” stance with regard to the entire British political system, but to me this seems like an indulgence. I am about as idealistic as they come, but still I acknowledge that politicians must to a large extent operate within the ballpark of existing public opinion, even when that public opinion is the reason for our current strategic impasse on nearly every important decision.

I have attended a number of events on the subject of conservative renewal over the past couple of years, and read and written countless words on the subject, but nearly every event thus far has left me rather underwhelmed. Either the basic optics were all wrong (like inviting Home Secretary Amber Rudd of all people to talk about encouraging visionary new policies) or the words were right but lacked any sense of plausibility.

And perhaps it is precisely because the most recent event I attended – Wednesday evening’s Centre for Policy Studies conversation with Chris Skidmore MP on the topic of Conservative renewal in government – did not promise the moon on a stick or suggest easy answers that I ended up coming away feeling more buoyed and encouraged by what I witnessed than has been the case in over six years.

Part of the reason was undoubtedly due to having attended the event with Chloe Schendel-Wilson, an optimistic young voice within British conservatism, something of a rising star and about as welcomely different from the stereotypical Young Conservative activist as one can imagine. Prior to the CPS event we had the opportunity to talk about what it might actually take to bring about meaningful conservative outreach to younger voters who have no time for Corbynism but currently see nothing positive in the Conservative Party, which has given me much food for thought.

But Chris Skidmore himself, in his role as vice chairman for policy, also talked a lot of sense, beginning with his acknowledgement that “there is a battle for the soul of the country, not only the size and shape of the state but also the future of markets”. Skidmore spoke about a return to “an age of extremes”, but to my mind there is presently just one extreme in British politics – that offered by Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour Party captured more than ever by the toxic Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. In the face of this danger, the Tories by contrast are not merely not extreme but positively wishy-washy, scampering to the Left on everything from market regulation, big government paternalism and disregard for the national defence. Would that the Tories actually offered a meaningful counterweight to Corbynism rather than the thirteen shades of beige painted by Theresa May.

Not everything that was discussed was on point. Much time was given by Chris Skidmore to talking about the need to create and promote “vertical narratives”, the kind of jargon I thought I had escaped when I left management consulting, which apparently involve telling marvellous and compelling tales about how children born in 2010 have flourished growing up under Conservative rule. I and several audience members thought that this was a bit of a stretch, that making the story about What Government Has/Can Do For Us will only draw us into an unwinnable war of promises with Labour, but perhaps there is something we’re missing.

Other points were much more welcome to hear, particularly when Chris Skidmore chastised the party for having failed to make any mention of the deficit in the 2017 manifesto, a striking feat of amnesia given the previous emphasis by David Cameron and George Osborne  (in rhetoric if not in deed). But best of all was Skidmore’s mention of the need for a timetable – a clear set of goals and ambitions for what the Conservative Party wants to achieve in government in 1, 5 and 10 years, something more tangible than clinging to power and surviving the daily news cycle.

Throughout the evening a lot of the right things were said – from the need for a strategic direction flowing down to granular policy goals on the one hand, to the need for “signpost moments” on the other – legislative or public relations events such as Iain Duncan Smith’s speech at the Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow. This blog has always maintained that an “all of the above” solution to the current Tory malaise is required, that there is no single policy or personnel change which alone can staunch the bleeding (though of course signpost moments are pointless until there is a clear direction for them to point towards).

But as always, the proof is in the pudding – deeds, not words. And despite more of the right things being said at this CPS event than at previous gatherings on the future of conservatism, the same niggling doubts remained. My misgivings about the Centre for Policy Studies’ New Generation project is that it is so MP-centric.

The CPS’s greatest victories, particularly looking back to the 1980s, occurred because the think tank sought ideas from outside the Westminster political bubble and fed them into Downing Street rather than relying on those within the bubble and inevitably wedded to certain ways of doing things to then come up with disruptively innovative new policies. Yet at one point Chris Skidmore said, with specific reference to the 2015 and 2017 intakes of Tory MPs “we’re here now, we have something to say”. Fantastic. Are the rest of us allowed to make some suggestions at any point, or is this to be an entirely Westminster-centric talking shop? And if the latter, why would we expect the results to be any less dismal than the last few years of Tory policymaking?

And so when it came time for Q&As, I seized the floor to repeat my pitch for a new Stepping Stones report to identify and analyse the challenges and opportunities facing Britain as we approach the 2020s, understand how those issues are interlinked, chart a path for national recovery and then generate a coherent suite of mutually-supporting, politically feasible policies to deliver on that strategy. I emphasised the point that attempting to individually tackle the various “crises” afflicting Britain without understanding how they are linked together and solving them together rather than in silos.

I further emphasised that generating policy to tackle symptoms rather than root causes is time and effort thrown away, that Britain has entered an unstable new period of political discontinuity not seen since the late 1970s when the prevailing political consensus and its associated policy solutions no longer work nor command majority public support, and warned that the future belongs to the political party which acknowledges this fact and comes to the electorate with an entirely different pitch.

As should be evident to anyone with a brain and a pulse, Labour is currently streets ahead of the Tories in this regard, with the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn itself evidence that the Labour Party has rejected the previous centrist consensus in favour of something different (much as a bulk of the parliamentary party may grumble about it). Fortunately their new offering is not particularly compelling, and indeed is actively repulsive to many swing voters – but at least the faction currently leading the Labour Party is trying something new. At present, the Conservative Party under Theresa May can be easily portrayed as grey, worn-out guardians of a despised status quo – not a good foundation for future electoral success.

Will anything positive come out of all these meetings? Who knows. More and more, the right things are being said, and glaring failures and weaknesses finally acknowledged. But the epiphany is happening far too slowly, and as was pointed out during the event, any future strategic planning will be for nought if the Tories cannot rack up some positive accomplishments between now and the next general election. A few people approached me after the Q&A was over and expressed support for what I had said, which I take as an encouraging sign, but ultimately I don’t see any real Conservative renaissance taking place unless the party and its orbiting system of think tanks and advocacy groups cast off their insularity and start welcoming input from outside.

Seeking and accepting help from outside takes humility – the kind of humility often only borne out of prolonged, crushing failure. That’s what it took for the Tories to reconsider their slavish devotion to the failing post-war consensus policies of the 1970s, and that’s probably what it will take today.

The only question is how bad will things have to get before the conservative minds holed up in Parliament and Tufton Street recognise that they don’t have all the answers?

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The Dangerous, Beguiling New Conservative Luddite Movement

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Conservative reform? Who needs it? Apparently the dogmas of the quiet past are totally adequate to the stormy present

Just as the prestige conservative media and a handful of prescient MPs are belatedly waking up to the need for serious ideological renewal within the Conservative Party, a reactionary new counter-movement seems to have popped up, determined to counsel complacency and inaction instead of urgency and reform.

Alex Wild of The Taypayers’ Alliance has a new piece in CapX entitled “Does the Conservative Party really need new ideas?“, in which he determines that no, the Tories can apparently do just fine by reheating the ideas and rhetoric of the past.

Not everything that Wild discusses is wrong – he does at least acknowledge that the Conservative Party’s primary political error in recent years has been their cowardly acceptance of leftist ideas and frames of reference, borne out of a pathetic and hopeless desire to be liked rather than respected. That much at least is accurate. But when it comes to diagnosing solutions, Wild seems to be under the dangerous illusion that playing the old Tory Greatest Hits album on endless repeat is a solution remotely equal to the challenge of our times. It isn’t.

Wild writes:

Instead of continually accepting the Left’s diagnosis and offering halfway-house policies that don’t actually do anything to address underlying causes, more basic thinking is required.

Energy is widely regarded as a dysfunctional market. But why doesn’t this market work while others, for example retail, do?

Is it because the shareholders and executives of utility companies are much more greedy and incompetent than the shareholders and executives of major retailers?

Or is it because, unlike in the energy sector, the government does not decide which shops are built where, what they sell and at what price?

This is indeed “basic thinking”. There are a number of reasons why even passionate privatisation advocates don’t support the idea of total deregulation of the energy market, not least because short-term profit maximisation may well be in the best interests of shareholders, but does not necessarily promote energy security or national security.

The worst that can happen with a deregulated retail sector is that some of our provincial high streets lose their character and small businesses, to be replaced by out-of-town big box stores which in turn are undermined by online shopping. The worst that could happen with a totally deregulated energy sector, on the other hand, is that the lights go out. We can have a sensible discussion about whether the current mode of privatisation is working, how it can be improved and whether more can be done to give consumers access to better information and ease of switching suppliers, but airily suggesting that the government get out of the way and allow any old punter to throw up a coal-fired power plant is to indulge in libertarian fantasy – and not even the good kind.

And then we get to the main event:

For the less-careerist, more policy-orientated MPs however, a potential pitfall is not just that they advocate variations of Leftist policies, but that they try too hard to find new ideas and wheezes whilst ignoring old ones which we know would actually work.

For starters, they should revisit policies floated between 2010 and 2015 that then failed to make it through the inevitable political wrangling of coalition government.

The reality is that for most of the major challenges the country faces, there are obvious solutions. Huge amounts of time and effort have been spent trying to explain the UK’s “productivity puzzle” but even if there are yet-to-be-fully-understood factors at play there are masses of things the government could do that would significantly increase productivity.

The tax system that punishes investment by taxing profits and not allowing businesses to write off investment in machinery and property from their tax bills. Stamp duty that gums up the housing market, preventing people from moving to take up better-paid jobs. The dreadful planning system that has driven up the cost of housing to obscene levels. The 67 per cent effective marginal tax rate on some high earners. The ongoing Heathrow third runway farce.

These are all problems with obvious solutions. No “blue-sky thinking” is required.

This “programme” of policies is to fail to see the wood for the trees. Sure, some of these ideas have merit – raising the speed limit seems sensible, while we have long known that a broken, NIMBY-enabling planning system is responsible for the ongoing housing crisis (the issue here is a lack of political will to fix it, not ignorance of the solution). Most conservatives also would agree that Gordon Brown’s questionably revenue-positive tax hike should have been repealed completely, not simply reduced by David Cameron’s equivocating administration, while this blog has been championing a third runway at Heathrow since I started writing in 2012.

But given the seismic political changes we have witnessed in British politics – the rise and fall of UKIP, the wane of Labour centrists and the Age of Jeremy Corbyn, the EU referendum and Brexit itself – it should be obvious to any outside observer that there is tremendous public dissatisfaction not confined to any one specific policy or issue, but rather at a systemic level. And looking at the state of the world – with the benefits and challenges of globalisation and automation, the ongoing massive global migration and the threat posed by radical Islam – it should be equally apparent that the standard policies of the centre-left and the centre-right are unequal to these unique challenges.

Reheating the 1980s and 1990s playbook is (in some ways) also currently being attempted by the Republican Party in the United States, and equally doomed to fail there as it is in Britain. With Donald Trump in the White House, Republican congressional leaders seized the moment to pass the big tax cut for which they have been incessantly clamouring. Fair enough. But now that they are in government rather than opposition, the tax cut came packaged with no commensurate spending cuts, meaning that the resulting bill has blown an already sizeable budget deficit wide open. After all the moralistic preaching about fiscal responsibility during the Obama years, only one Republican senator – Rand Paul of Kentucky – expressed serious reservations about this hypocrisy (and even he ultimately voted for the bill).

This approach may reap some political dividends in the short term, as individuals enjoy a slight reduction in their tax burden and certain corporations reward their long-serving employees with an unexpected bonus. But in the medium to long term, all the Republicans are doing is frittering away any remaining claim they had to being the party of fiscal conservatism, kicking the can down the road on every serious entitlement reform which needs to be considered and further sullying their brand by association with President Trump’s new protectionism.

Likewise, rebooting Thatcherism for the 21st century with no introspection or modification is no solution to our present challenges. Thatcher’s privatisation programme and her government’s rollback of the worst excesses of the socialist post-war settlement were vital, and saved this country from likely terminal national decline. There are few more ardent fans of Margaret Thatcher than myself. But to pretend to oneself that the same bag of tricks will get Britain out of an entirely different set of problems four decades later is dangerous self-deception.

One gets the strong sense that the rising profile of backbench MP and Brexit Ultra Jacob Rees-Mogg, refreshing though he can be (on matters other than Brexit) for the forthrightness of his views and his refusal to disavow deeply held values, is also a symptom of this nascent reactionary movement within contemporary British conservatism, the idea that we need only find a new leader who looks and sounds like a traditional Tory in order to repeat past Tory success.

But what Alex Wild and this nascent Thatcherism Redux movement fail to realise is that Britain has entered an unstable period of political discontinuity, a time of serious national challenges, threats and opportunities where the tried-and-tested policies of the past no longer work effectively nor command majority political support. Be it Corbyn’s unreconstructed socialism, reanimated Thatcherism or whatever Theresa May’s inarticulable vision of government happens to be (nobody really knows), none of these options command the kind of enthusiasm or political support on which strong governments with mandates for change are built.

There is no tax cut which can address the fact that Britain’s public pension system is becoming little more than a national Ponzi scheme propped up only by high levels of immigration (itself a solution with rapidly diminishing returns). There is no privatisation scheme which can deliver meaningful healthcare reform within the incredibly narrow Overton window established by the high priests of the NHS. There is no instant productivity fix, or any lasting solution to that intractable problem which does not involve a much wider conversation about how our education system currently fails to churn out school leavers, apprentices, technical diploma holders and university graduates equipped to walk into the jobs of tomorrow – let alone reach back to help those adults struggling to adapt on their own.

These are some of the real root causes of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. Public polling may not yet always the right questions in order to draw this broader, inchoate dissatisfaction out into the open, but the pressing nature of these challenges should be evident to anyone involved in strategic political thinking (apparently a particular weakness in the current Tory Party).

The absolute last thing that the anaemic British conservative movement needs, just as it starts to awaken to the danger in which it has placed itself, is for a new movement to come along peddling false reassurance that new challenges do not in fact require new policy solutions, and that there is no problem too big to be effectively cured by tax cuts and deregulation. Yet this message, if allowed to go unchallenged, may prove to be especially attractive to a Conservative Party in which only a handful of MPs are awake to the need for ideological renewal.

For many senior Conservatives – including Theresa May’s uniquely uninspired senior lieutenants and likely successors – the message that they can succeed by adopting the government equivalent of painting by numbers effectively absolves the government of any need to think for themselves, to acknowledge that the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.

And that’s what makes the siren song of Thatcherism Redux so potentially dangerous.

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Left-Wing Groups Continue To Outpace The Conservative Party On Strategic Thinking

Young Fabians - Global Ready Britain - Taking Stock As We Go It Alone

While Theresa May’s rootless Conservative Party tears itself apart over Brexit and continues to fail to provide a clear, positive vision for Britain, one currently has to look primarily to left-wing groups for a systemic analysis of Britain’s challenges — and ideas to fix them

Depressing as it is to write, still it must be acknowledged that with the Conservative Party permanently stuck in neutral under the leadership of a failed prime minister, nearly all of the intellectual and political energy currently resides on the left and centre-left of British politics.

Not Jeremy Corbyn’s faction of the Labour Party, of course – Corbynism still doesn’t seem to amount to much more than reheating the planned economy policies of the 1960s and 1970s, which only failed last time because we didn’t throw ourselves behind them lustily enough when they gave us the three-day week and rolling blackouts. And an important caveat should be made that some forward-thinking Conservative MPs are doing their utmost to shock some intellectual and ideological life back into the party – George Freeman and Nick Boles being the two most prominent examples.

Yet it remains the case that when it comes to acknowledging that Britain has entered a period of discontinuity – a time when we face a new configuration of challenges which are unresponsive to the policy remedies of the past and causing people to lose faith in existing political parties, processes and institutions – the Left seems to “get it” far more than the Right. This might be forgivable if conservatives were actively using their time in government to enact an agenda of their own, however misguided. But there is no agenda, save what appears to be a concerted effort to move the Conservative Party to the left of Ed Miliband’s losing 2015 Labour Party manifesto.

By contrast, Ria Bernard, chair of the Young Fabians, has one eye fixed on the future. Writing for LabourList, Bernard urges:

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, we need to be thinking about our position globally to ensure that we can compete and prosper economically and socially on the international stage.

While understandably most parliamentary activity is currently focused on the Brexit deal, we need to consider what happens next as Britain seeks a more independent role for itself in global trade.

The idea of auditing our strengths and vulnerabilities as a nation should not be something brought about by the decision to break ties with the EU – it should be something we are routinely doing to enable us to reach our potential and ensure prosperity for everyone in society. But it seems particularly important that at this time we consider where we stand in terms of a range of domestic policy areas and how we measure up to nations around the world.

If we look at our domestic policies, are we functioning at full capacity? Do we have the skills, expertise and structures in place to ensure that domestically we are supporting the population, and internationally we are able to compete? Which areas of domestic policy will put us in a strong position as we go it alone, and where will we need to be focusing our efforts to ensure that we can compete and participate in the global economy?

Apparently the Young Fabians have been working on this initiative for awhile, and have now published a report with the fruits of their labour. The report itself grew out of discussions around three specific questions:

  1. What are the strengths and vulnerabilities of Britain’s domestic policy in comparison with other countries?
  2. What are our core strengths as a nation that will enable us to effectively compete in the global community?
  3. What will undermine our place on the global stage?

These are absolutely the kind of questions that need to be asked in order to engage in strategic thinking. Serious political leaders ought regularly to conduct a dispassionate analysis of where we stand vis-a-vis our peer countries and competitors. They ought to fearlessly scrutinise our current strengths and weaknesses, confronting any serious liabilities rather than ignoring them. And perhaps most importantly, serious political leaders should be able to outline a clear vision for domestic political reform or management together with an unambiguous declaration of what Britain stands for in the world – and with whom we stand.

Does anybody honestly think that the incumbent Conservative government is engaging in any of these basic acts of strategic thinking? Does anybody honestly believe that they have done so since Theresa May came to power? Or even since 2010 and the coalition government led by David Cameron? In the former cases, the answer is surely no. Instead, ministers scurry around putting out fires or chasing positive headlines, picking up or dropping policies based on the next day’s news cycle rather than doing what is right, guided by conservative principle. And all of this under the “leadership” of a prime minister whose primary objective every morning is to survive the day.

Obviously it is easier to engage in strategic thinking from the luxury of opposition, when one has nothing but time to kick ideas around and undertake the kind of analysis that leads to good policy. But being in power is no excuse for a failure to plan – this government should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, otherwise what are we paying them for?

Meanwhile, as Conservative MPs and activists glumly try to discern whether Amber Rudd or Philip Hammond is the more inspirational, charismatic future leader to replace Theresa May, the Young Fabians correctly identify many of the major challenges facing the country:

It is widely acknowledged that we are performing poorly in terms of growth, productivity and underemployment. We have a generation of young people who are encouraged to go to university, then face a limited pool of graduate-level jobs, leading to a huge mismatch between skills and demand across the skills bands. The “gig economy” and the rise in automation is at risk of eroding hard-won rights and making job security a luxury. Our levels of productivity are some of the lowest in the world and yet we are working some of the longest hours in Europe.

If we look at health and education – are our systems the most effective way to ensure a healthy, prosperous and highly skilled population? The NHS is under phenomenal strain as it performs in a context of under-funding, staff shortages and the demands of an increasingly ageing population. A country with a healthcare service that is entirely free at the point of use, and provides services far beyond the scope of when it was initially founded in 1948, spends a significantly low proportion of its GDP on it. The NHS is likely to face challenges around funding for new research and negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, as well linking up with social care and the correcting the failure to invest in prevention.

The increasingly fractured education system, which comprises a wide range of schools from privately-funded institutions and state comprehensives to academies, free schools and faith schools, is leading to postcode lotteries and a disparity in access to specialist provision. Yet, in terms of skills and innovation, we need to be evaluating whether our national curriculum is fit for teaching the skills and knowledge that will be needed to compete in the international job market. Is the next generation prepared for the new world of automation and able to compete in the era of globalisation?

At one point in the report, the Young Fabians – the Young Fabians! – even question the continued viability of the National Health Service:

Turning to the NHS, there was much discussion on whether it is the most cost-effective way of delivering high quality, free at the point of use healthcare or if the system is no longer sustainable.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs, terrified of showing anything less than fawning deference to our national religion, continue to tweet out bland banalities and paeans of praise to the NHS without engaging in any kind of strategic or comparative analysis to determine whether that dated organisation still best serves our needs:

What is impressive here is that rather than wasting time in a divisive effort to thwart Brexit or impose an ideologically pre-determined left-wing wishlist of policies on Britain, the Young Fabians chose instead to look forward, not back. They started with a blank sheet of paper and  sought to identify all of the various challenges (and presumably opportunities) facing Britain in order to inform joined-up policymaking.

The next step – for which we have not yet seen any evidence from the Young Fabians, though hardly their fault when nobody else has led the way – is an attempt to join up these various diagnoses and identify the connections, dependencies and shared root causes between the various issues. This is an important step if we are to ensure that future policies work in concert with one another to achieve positive outcomes rather than interfering with one another or leading to the kind of confused messaging which can erode political support for a course of action.

It should be a source of abiding shame to Theresa May and those with prominent positions in the Conservative Party that one has to turn to groups such as the Young Fabians for the kind of strategic analysis that most competent governments (and nearly all major corporations) undertake as a matter of course. It should not be necessary for blogs such as this one to plead with MPs and ministers to lift their gaze from the daily news cycle for long enough to articulate a positive vision for their respective departments or for the country as a whole, and yet here we are.

When Britain last went through a period of discontinuity in the late 1970s, Labour represented declinism, fear of the future and a slavish commitment to the failing policies of the post-war consensus. Their punishment for failing to show political courage at that time was eighteen years in the wilderness of opposition, and the destruction of much which they claim to hold dear. The Tories now find themselves in a nearly identical position, painted as grim custodians of a failing status quo, an obstinately un-visionary party of technocrats and chancers who want to cling onto power only for power’s sake. Some of the issues feeding into our current period of discontinuity are different, but the political threat is identical.

And unless the Tories can stop being bested at strategic thinking by a group of earnest twenty-somethings of the centre-left, Labour’s fate of 1979 awaits them.

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