John Hayes MP: To inspire we must be confident about our Conservatism
British politics has changed; the old battles between left and right have lost much of their meaning. The last Conservative Government instigated economic reforms, bitterly resisted by the Labour party at the time, which made our economy far more flexible. The resultant long period of uninterrupted economic growth (although not yet as long as the post-war boom) has brought greater wealth for most people. As the press reported last week, the middle classes have seen their earnings grow twice as fast as personal inflation over the last ten years. Yet in many ways our lives are worse. In spite of our rising prosperity, surveys show that we are less happy than we were 50 years ago. In many parts of our nation a sense of community is just a memory and countless towns and cities that in the light are indistinguishable from one another, after dark, become concrete wastelands where few dare venture.
At long last sensible politicians are being to grasp that standard of living and quality of life are not synonymous. David Cameron understands this political dynamic. His focus on civil renewal and well-being reflects the changing priorities of our society. We now see public space as important as private gain, we talk as much of well being as we do of wealth. Greater prosperity has also finally led to an understanding that spending alone will not fix the problems of our broken society. We have amongst the highest rates of family breakdown, teenage pregnancy and drug addiction in Europe. In stark contrast to Labour’s rhetoric, the poorest in our country have actually got poor over the last ten years and nearly 1.3 million 16 to 24 year-olds are inactive, a rise of roughly 15% since 1997.
So, David Cameron’s emphasis on the huge task of rebuilding civil society is not only morally right it also politically astute. Rather than shifting the Conservative Party to the centre ground, the territory of political compromise unconnected with the needs of the people and the place where many of these problems have their political genesis, he has placed our party squarely in what Keith Joseph once described as the common ground, where politicians reflect people’s deepest wishes and aspirations. Conservatives understand that civil society can only be rebuilt from the bottom-up, by trusting communities, charities and voluntary organisations to get on with the job. Gordon Brown has at last embraced the quality of life agenda but his faith is not in the people but in the man in Whitehall. He may understand that housing is an increasing concern, but his centrally imposed target of three million new houses located chiefly in a few growth areas will result in the wrong homes being built in the wrong places and repeat the urban planning disasters of the 1950s and 60s.
Thanks to David Cameron’s leadership voters perceptions of our party have begun to change. The parody of conservatism – sometimes given substance by the style and preoccupations of those liberal individualists that occupy our party – is being replaced by a communitarian, compassionate and patriotic authentic Toryism. But to win the next election we now must marry the substance of Cameron’s message with a dynamic local politics that reaches people on the doorstep. Andrew Rosindell in Romford, David Burrowes in Enfield Southgate, Steward Jackson in Peterborough and others have demonstrated the electoral potential of locally focused, positive campaigning; of re-building the Conservative cadre from the bottom-up. In my own South Holland district there are now no Labour or Liberal Democrat councillors because we have filled the space they might otherwise occupy. For us no issue is too parochial, no constituent unimportant, every cause is ‘owned’ or backed by the Conservative team.
We cannot win the next election by re-fighting the battles of the past. Thatcherism’s core economic arguments are a priori assumptions for all who aspire to govern. Such is the degree of the blessed Lady’s triumph. But this has changed the right/left axis forever. We already know that Gordon Brown will not shift the Labour party to the left in any way that is meaningful to voters. Indeed, his pronouncements on a unified border force, super casinos and 24 hour drinking demonstrate that he is actually moving Labour further into Conservative territory. David Cameron understands this. He knows that we can only win by developing a new agenda that addresses the deep concerns that people have about the character of society. As consideration of the things we share – the nature of belonging, identity and responsibility – grow, it’s ‘we’ politics not ‘me’ politics that will dominate the new electoral battleground. To appeal Conservatives must challenge selfish individualism as we once challenged the dull mediocrity of socialist egalitarianism. To win we must reassert the essence of our credo with confidence and dedication and take our message to every part of the nation.