Tony Devenish: The party is modernising, but some continuity - and respect for a plurality of views - is as important as change
Whilst I hesitate to repeat the Thatcher Cabinet Minister John Biffen’s career-limiting 1987 plea for ‘consolidation’, the last four years have shown that the Conservative Party is modernising but - unlike New Labour's abandonment of Clause IV and so on - is holding to timeless Conservative themes.
There is no need in our party for a so-called Clause IV moment. Despite the occasional ‘silly season’ style tabloid headlines, few can argue with the view that the party is both offering constructive solutions to the hole Gordon Brown has dug for UK Plc - as well as selecting parliamentary candidates who increasingly mirror contemporary British society to argue the case for sensible modernisation.
The Conservative Party has indeed changed considerably over the last four years, as I witnessed as an MEP candidate who visited seventy constituencies over fifteen months. However, whilst it is to be welcomed that ‘we are all modernisers now’, we do need to recognise and respect a plurality of views. And those views include those of people who perhaps live outside the M25, do not work (or aspire to work) full-time in politics or the media (parodied so brutally but realistically in The Thick of It), and yes, may well be conservative with a small ‘c’ and (like me) north of forty years of age.
All ConHome readers know modernising a political party takes guts: it also takes an authoritarian will of steel. But it is worth remembering why it has taken Labour nearly a quarter of a century to (almost) ‘love’ Peter Mandelson and why New Labour has become so loathed and distrusted by the public.
It is not just because of the change New Labour forced on their party, nor the economic and socially catastrophic results of the last twelve years: it is because of the poisonous culture Mandelson and his mainly London-based party officials created, attacking anyone who held any divergent opinion on ANY subject - be they a parliamentarian, journalist, long-standing loyal and hard-working party member or indeed vocal members of the general public (or, as witnessed recently, professional experts).
Over the last four years David Cameron has rightly (on the whole) adjusted our party’s position on a number of issues and for those of us who remember the despair of numerous by-elections (not to mention 1997, 2001 and 2005) it was certainly needed.
However, as John Stafford wrote so eloquently in a Platform piece in August, party membership does not (in my view) need to have fallen by twenty five percent under David Cameron’s leadership. We all need the eyes and ears of grassroots members; we all need to do more to engage actively with the wider public and to listen not just to those who ‘Google’.
I was taught that in leadership you are judged not by what you say, but by your actions. New Labour and control freaks from Mandelson to Gordon Brown have failed to listen or represent the views of their own party, their natural supporters or the wider country.
I hope in the run-up to the General Election David Cameron will continue to modernise by engaging actively with his parliamentary and voluntary party as well as the country as a whole. Then we can seek as a Conservative team to persuade the British public that the Thick of It culture is the story of Brown’s Britain and that May 2010 can mark the beginning of a new chapter where a plurality of views is acceptable in our representative democracy.