George Freeman MP: UKIP come knocking: what's going on, and how to respond?
My constituency of Mid Norfolk is seriously small 'c' Conservative country. From time on the doorsteps in the last month with local councillors and candidates, it is clear that UKIPs message is resonating loudly with bedrock Conservatives. Far from chiming just with extremists or closet racists or BMP sympathisers - who they clearly are also picking up - Nigel Farage's message is also chiming with decent mainstream Conservatives who have traditionally been the bedrock of the Conservative Party. Feedback from polling stations last night, last night's by-election result from South Shields, and early returns from Essex and other rural counties suggest a low turnout - and that a strong UKIP surge is producing a serious breakthrough. What's going on? How to respond?
It's clear to me from listening to UKIP 'swingers' that this UKIP surge is much more than just a mid-term protest vote. It's about much more than a deep and growing concern about the failures of the European project. And it's about much more than a single issue protest about uncontrolled immigration. Its also clear that it is NOT a sign of a hardening of voter opinion to the Right, or a call for more red-blooded right wing policies. Let's hope the Red Eds mistakenly use UKIP's land- grab of Labour voters as a sign that they need to lurch left, but let's not make the same mistake ourselves and lurch backwards to some mythical right-wing programme which some suggest would sweep us to a majority if we would only have the courage to promise it. We need courage, for sure - but it's the courage to listen to some tough love from critical friends, and try and understand what lies beneath Farage's appeal.
We need to be clear who UKIP are appealing to and why. It isn't just traditional Conservative voters like those listed above. It also Old Labour core voters: blue collar, manual and traditional-values trade 'Working Mans Club' Labour. It's also groups that mainstream parties have struggled to connect with: the young, first time voters; the concerned but apolitical mothers who so often deal in the family with the bread and butter social issues of childcare, education, health, and care, and whose concern used often to express itself as support for those nice Lib Dems Pre-Coalition.
So what is behind the UKIP appeal? I believe it is an expression of something much deeper than the policies it is championing that binds them together. Something that has been incubating over the last decade. A deep, inchoate sense of betrayal by ordinary mainstream British voters that the political establishment in London, not just Europe, has been looking after itself more than the people who put it there. A deep sense that, in politics, banking, the media, and seemingly across the board of modern Britain, the elites at the top have been spending too much time enjoying each other's company, at the expense of looking after those at the bottom of the pyramid that put them there. It's fundamentally about values, rather than policies. The British people are developing a deep, visceral but quiet anger at what is coming to be seen as the betrayal of ordinary people - and the values they expect and aspire to be governed through - by increasingly unaccountable elites.
This is the new dividing line of British politics, and we can and must be the right side of it. To do so our new generation needs to draw on and fuse different strands of Conservative thinking. Burke's 'Little Platoons'. The values of Margaret Thatcher's nonconformist, small town, small business common sense Conservatism of the grass roots that we rediscovered around her inspirational funeral last month. John Major's quiet decency. IDS's anger at the betrayal of the most vulnerable in our society by the people who could and should do most for them. And an older set of more patrician Conservative values around the importance of responsibility, duty, philanthropy, and the obligations of the most privileged to the most vulnerable which underpin any decent society.
This isn't about leadership. The reason David Cameron's leadership was so electrifying was his ability to insist we talk about and tackle this public concern at our 'broken society, politics and economy' and be the change in a radical and reforming Government. I believe our public spending constraints and radical reforms of welfare, education and public services are resonating. What's missing is a clear communication of our values.
Conservative values are, and have always been, the glue that binds the Conservative Party together and explains its historic connection with the British electorate. The left will seize on this narrative of 'unaccountable elites', and claim that it enforces the legitimacy of the Labour Party as the Party of renewal. We must remind the electorate that it was under New Labour that institutional irresponsibility of office and contempt for those at the bottom - remember Cool Brittania and Mandelson professing to be "profoundly relaxed" about the filthy rich? - became a cultural phenomena. It was under New Labour that the state embarked on a historic con-trick to bribe the electorate with a borrowed boom based on cheap credit, mass immigration, and an explosion of Government spending. New Labour embodied the new unaccountability of the elites and we should never let them forget it.
The business of Government - compounded tenfold as we tackle the scale of the legacy of debt and disillusionment incubated to criminal proportions under New Labour - distracts from the business of door knocking. The message from this election is that we must never forget who and what we are in Government for. The people who put us there. What they expect and deserve. And the values that unite them and us.