The Conservative Party we have and the Conservative Party we need
By Tim Montgomerie
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Today sees the launch of MajorityConservatism.com*. It's my thinking on how the Tories might win the next election. Over time, however, I hope it will be much more than my thinking. I hope others will critique my thoughts and others will offer alternative ideas as to how we achieve a majority at the next election.
As I explain in today's Times (£) the Tory electoral position is not as good as it might seem. Our current opinion poll rating is flattered by the weakness of Labour. Ed Miliband is both too odd and too red. Labour has failed to detoxify their economic reputation. On welfare, immigration and borrowing Ed Miliband's party is badly out of touch with public opinion. But as Stephan Shakespeare and I argued in a recent edition of The Sunday Telegraph, the Tory leadership should not think itself strong because Labour is weak.
Let's look at some arresting facts:
- The Conservatives haven't won a general election outright since 1992.
- Against a discredited, disunited and badly-led Labour government we added just 4% to our support at the last election and 2005 was one of our worst ever defeats.
- Only 27% of voters in the most marginal seats think we are on the side of ordinary people.
- We have lost our advantage among women voters. Favourability towards the coalition is 12% lower among female voters according to internal Tory polling (£).
- Most voters think the spending cuts are "unfair".
- We were 10% behind Labour in the north of England in 1979. We are now 13% behind. In Scotland, of course, the situation is even worse.
- After the NHS reform debacle only 20% think the health service is safe in David Cameron's hands.
- Asked to say who the Conservative Party and David Cameron most understands, voters say the rich and big business. The group the Conservative Party understands least according to a YouGov survey for ConHome of 2,333 voters are families struggling to make ends meet.
- The Tories are still fishing in a smaller pool than Labour. While 70% would consider voting for Ed Miliband's party and 64% would consider voting Liberal Democrat, the ceiling for the Tories is just 58%. In order to win an election we need to convert a good three quarters of our potential voters while Labour only needs to capture a much smaller proportion.
- Lord Ashcroft's 'Project Blueprint' survey of 10,000 voters found that (in his words): "For those who considered voting Tory in 2010 but thought better of it, the biggest barrier (which Tories are sick of hearing about but is real nonetheless) was the continuing impression that the party is for the rich, not people like them."
The Cameroons concluded that the process of reassuring voters that the Conservatives didn't have two heads could only be completed in government. Only by actually sitting in the nursery and not eating babies would we prove that our intentions were honest. Early experience of government, however, is suggesting we might be recontaminating our brand as much as continuing the decontamination. Her's a snippet from my Times piece:
"Voters, for example, are most anxious about jobs and incomes but the coalition spends too much time talking about the deficit. The shambolic health reforms erased the lead on the NHS that he spent five painstaking years building. His flagship project to define his compassionate conservatism, the Big Society, may be intellectually potent but has confused the public. Rather than arguing that poverty is beaten by strong families, good schools and work, the Government has often reinforced the left-wing idea that compassion is measured by how much taxpayers’ money it spends."
This problem isn't helped by Liberal Democrats taking every opportunity to paint the Conservatives in the worst possible light. There is worrying evidence that voters are giving the Liberal Democrats the credit for the 'kind and gentle' things that the Coalition is doing.
Over the next ten days I'll be setting out ways of getting to the top of the steep climb that is pictured at the top of this post. Replacing the Big Society with a streetwise description of compassionate conservatism. Putting the hard-working poor at the front of the queue when it comes to tax cuts. Taxing wealth more and income less. Emphasising job creation, not debt reduction in the party's economic narrative. Taking a tough approach to crime and sentencing. Pursuing achievable rather than change-the-world environmentalism. Turning St George's Day into a public holiday and holding a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. Replacing state funding of voluntary organisations with voucher funding. Ending the Barnett formula. Worrying more about the local roots of candidates than about their gender or skin colour. Changing the Conservative Party into an Alliance of networked campaigners. Spending more Tory funds on targeted campaigning rather than motorway billboards.
Most of all we need a compelling economic narrative. Households are living under the shadow of two great challenges - massive debts and the fast-growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. People are nervous. The Tory leadership is wrong to think they can be reassured by half measures. Tested individually the components of a bold economic rescue strategy will be controversial and unpopular but that's the wrong way of thinking about things. The most worrying thing for a sick economy isn't controversial medicines but a sense that the doctor has no cure.
* I have to apologise for renaming this site MajorityConservatism. ConHome readers had voted for FutureConservatism but I couldn't get used to it. MajorityConservatism captures what this part of the site is all about. It's about winning a Conservative majority at the next election and it's about listening to the majority of the British people's views on the great issues of our time.