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A Conservative Party for the little guy

By Tim Montgomerie
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On Monday I listed ten weaknesses in the Conservative Party's electoral position. At the heart of these weaknesses was number 10; Lord Ashcroft's finding that among target voters there is a sense that we are a party of the rich and not on the side of ordinary voters. We have to change this and David Cameron has been attempting to do so since he first became Tory leader. He follows in the footsteps of George W Bush's less thorough attempts to do so from 2000 onwards in the US context.

Two factors are currently disguising the extent of the Conservative Party's weakness in this whole area. One is the greater strategic weakness of Ed Miliband and Labour. Mark Ferguson and Olly Parker helpfully summarised our principal opponent's challenges on LabourList. The second thing disguising the scale of our problem is the global political environment. All over the world right-of-centre parties are prospering. Centre right parties are in office across Europe and are in the ascendancy across the Anglosphere because voters cannot afford left-wing policies when they are struggling to make ends meet. Right-of-centre parties may mismanage these times and be rejected but they are also likely to be rejected when better times eventually return if they don't have a vision for those times.

To complete the Conservative Party's modernisation and move us from a party of 37% to over 42% we need to become the party of the little guy. To achieve this I suggest the following five changes.

Understand the distinction between being the party of the rich and being a right-wing party

Many Cameroons are obessed with the party not appearing too right-wing. It's important to realise that there is a distinction between being too right-wing and too remote from the concerns of ordinary voters. Right-wing and Rich peoples' policies sometimes overlap - the case for abolishing the 50p tax band being an obvious example. But right-wing policies are often different from rich people's politics. The wealthy tend to benefit from uncontrolled immigration, for example. The semi-skilled poor most certainly do not. Many wealthy voters can afford expensive climate change policies. People on low and fixed incomes cannot. The wealthy can afford to take permissive approaches to crime because all evidence is that the poor are crime's greatest victims. Many of the modernising measures undertaken by David Cameron in recent years have made us less right-wing but have not done nearly enough to make us appear less like a party of the already haves.

Understand the distinction between help for those who can't help themselves and the hardworking poor

Some compassionate policies help the very poorest. Policies on overseas aid, for example, help the hungriest people on the planet. Although poorly targeted the Coalition's uprating of the basic state pension by inflation or average earnings will also help many people in Britain who are most struggling to make ends meet. The group that David Cameron and George Osborne also need to keep at the front of their minds is the hardworking poor. They tend to be most resentful of waste by the state because they are the least able to afford any waste in their own lives. When there is room for tax cuts these voters need to be at the front of the queue. As Robert Halfon MP has argued, cut petrol tax before the 50p rate. And don't, please, make a big song and dance about lifting them out of income tax altogether if you are also clobbering them with 20% VAT.

Turn the volume down on the Big Society and adopt a simple message of family, school and jobs

The Big Society was Cameron's big attempt to present his Conservatism as something different to that which went before. As an intellectual idea it is one that stands in the best Burkean traditions of conservatism. It shouldn't disappear from Cameron's speeches but it needs to stop being the dominant way of explaining modern Conservatism. Despite multiple relaunches people are very confused by what the Big Society means. This confusion matters because without a compelling description of this Tory-led government's purpose it will be defined by cuts and that is to Labour's advantage. Conservatives need to counter the great left-wing ideological victory that a measure of a country or a political party's compassion is the amount of taxpayers' money it spends. Conservatives mustn't be anti-government but we must change the narrative on poverty-fighting. We must draw on the evidence which shows that a person beats poverty if they have the support of a strong family, do well at school and then get into work. Family. Education. Jobs. A libertarian would stop there and tell a person that they are on their own in achieving those things. A compassionate conservative government will actively support people in succeeding at school, getting into work and ensuring their family life is nurtured.

Stand up for the consumer and small business

One of the more absurd ideas recently put forward by the Coalition was the idea of a "buddy line" where fifty big business leaders could have special access to ministers. It smacked of corporatism. We need a more competitive capitalism and that means being on the side of the consumer and the small business. I'm not anti big business. I've often recorded my admiration for the likes of Tesco but government must ensure consumers have maximum choice in areas like banking and energy and that small businesses aren't handicapped by regulations that big businesses can easily absorb.

Develop a moral language to describe these times

Why are we cutting borrowing? Are we cutting borrowing because we want to do what international markets require or are we cutting borrowing because we shouldn't spend money we don't have and pass on the debts to our children? The answer may be both but it might be better to wrap our project in more moral language. In the New York Times earlier this week David Brooks talked about The Great Restoration. He gave this Restoration three principles: You shouldn’t spend more than you take in.  You re-establish the link between effort and reward. Thirdly, loyalty matters (including corporate loyalty to communities and employees). I've suggested my own list of big principles in the past. Modern Compassionate Conservatism needs to own principles like these and it needs a moral brand as streetwise as Labour's.

> This movement to being the Conservative Party of the little guy is one of the three strategic shifts I identified on Tuesday. In my next MajorityConservatism blog I'll examine the other two strategic shifts together.


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