The Conservative plan to paint Britain blue for a generation
Political scientists talk of realigning elections when what comes to power is not so much a familiar party but a new coalition. In realigning elections politics isn't changed for four or five years but for a whole generation.
I want to explain why - if things go well - the Conservatives can re-establish themselves as the natural party of government. In a year's time David Cameron could be the most important centre right leader in the world - not just leading Britain but defining the future of conservatism around the world.
Let me start at the beginning with a gross over-simplification. The Conservative Party has long been seen as a party of the better off. The Labour Party is the party of poorer Britons. The Conservatives are a rural and suburban party, concentrated in the south and west of England while Labour is an urban party, of the north, of Scotland and of Wales. The Conservatives are a party of Euroscepticism, business and a tough approach to law and order. We are the party of freedom, the market economy, strong defence and national pride. The Labour Party defines itself in terms of commitments to minority rights, to the NHS, to the welfare state, to the trade union movement. The Conservatives are the party of the individual and the market. Labour are the party of equality and the state.
Those really are gross simplifications but the Cameron project's huge ambition - and it is a huge ambition - is to shake up those tired simplifications and broaden what it means to be a conservative. Broaden is the key word. There is no abandonment of traditional conservatism but a determination to occupy ground surrendered for too long to the Left.
The drawing on the right (click to enlarge) captured where the Conservative Party was four or so years ago. We were a party narrow in conception. We had lost fluency on all issues but tax, crime, Europe and immigration.'Full spectrum conservatism'
ConservativeHome commissioned the shields drawing that crowns this site to illustrate what conservatism could and should be. We called it the "politics of and"; a politics that combined the familar with a rediscovery of conservative commitments to the poor, to the environment and to the family. We made the point (sometimes too often) that there was nothing incompatible between a tough approach to immigration and a generous policy towards the poorest people of the world. Nothing incompatible between support for traditional marriage and a respect for gay couples. Nothing incompatible between investing in our own defence and worrying about the arms trade.
Over the four years since David Cameron became party leader he has been remarkably consistent in pursuing modernisation on ten fronts. If there was some imbalance in the first half of that period - with neglect of core conservative messages - the 'über-modernisation' was scuttled in the summer of 2007 and the modernising message has been successfully twinned with the traditional ever since.A defeated Labour party
Before I describe the key dimensions of the new conservatism it is essential to note that the realignment is only possible because of the parlous state of the Labour project. Suffering from exhaustion of purpose, wiped out in large parts of southern Britain, heavily-in-debt, a demoralised activist base, losing talent from its upper echelons, disunited and increasingly nasty-in-style, the Labour Party is a weak opponent. It may remain so for some time.
Reaching middle class 'values voters'At the heart of the coming realignment is a very simple political idea and a more interesting philosophical idea:
- The very simple political idea is that there are an increasing number of people out there who see their vote as an ethical responsibility as well as an act of self-interest. These 'values voters' deserted the Conservatives in 1997 because they were uneasy at aspects of the nation created by the Thatcher-Major years even though they had benefited from them. They - to use Iain Duncan Smith's borrowed expression - wanted to vote for a party that wasn't just 'good for them' but was also 'good for their neighbour'. We failed to address them for most of our time in government and for most of our years in opposition. Steve Hilton, still David Cameron's most important adviser, gets the need for a greener, gentler Conservatism to reach the values voters. But he is not the only one who gets it. There are now a serious number of senior Conservatives who see their involvement in politics as defined by their commitment to rebuilding one nation. David Cameron himself but also Greg Clark, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Oliver Letwin, Theresa May, Caroline Spelman and David Willetts. Policy Exchange gets a lot of media attention - and rightly so - but the think tank that matters most on the right is the Centre for Social Justice. The CSJ is providing the policy manifesto on family, welfare, housing and the voluntary sector that is making 'compassionate conservatism' real. Prospect Magazine recognised this in last week's Think Tank of the Year Award.
- The more interesting philosophical idea is the idea of society. If you want to understand the Cameron project - wrote The Guardian's Julian Glover - you need to look at just one soundbite; "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the state." Back to my earlier gross simplification; The Conservatives are the party of the individual and the market while Labour are the party of equality and the state. That leaves the huge wealth of social architecture that lies between the individual and the state unchampioned. By social architecture I mean Edmund Burke's small platoons of family, church, local school and so on.
John Howard had his battlers, the 1980s Republicans won the 'Reagan Democrats', Stephen Harper has the Tim Horton voters (after a budget donut store). Cameron will need this section of lower income voters too. If the values voters are added to the Conservative coalition by the emphasis on poverty-fighting, climate change and civil liberties, the hope is that tax cuts for 'strivers' will renew the allegiance of the political phenomenon once known as Essex Man. Tax cuts won't be enough, of course and they'll be difficult to afford until the end of a first parliament. Good public services and strong messages on Europe, immigration and crime are also essential but CCHQ is sat on top of polling that shows tax relief for low income workers does more to move votes than almost any other measure.Creating conservative institutions
The most enduring revolutions create institutions; institutions that continue to defend themselves long after their initial sponsor has moved on. Think of the NHS as Labour's great achievement in this regard. Michael Gove's start-up schools movement is the leading institutional legacy envisaged by David Cameron. Schools that are run by local communities and set their own pay, discipline standards and curriculum will not give up their freedoms lightly. They'll be natural conservative institutions, populated by hundreds of thousands of voters. The Conservatives also hope to create a new voluntary sector alongside the existing sector. The existing sector is often an extension of the state - recycling the state's ideas and personnel. Conservatives want to revolutionise the funding relationship with the voluntary sector so that more community-based groups flourish and develop into powerful welfare agencies in their localities.
Disabling hostile institutions
The next few years will be tough and there will be plenty of opportunities for the whole Cameron project to go wrong (see Melanchthon yesterday) but I still feel hopeful. Labour has never before faced a Conservative Party that is as serious about its commitment to the poor and the environment as it is serious about the public finances and law and order. The Conservative Party has never been more ambitious about invading traditional Labour territory. The Tories do not just have the ideas with which to launch the conquest, but also a machine. Campaign North is revolutionising the party's presence in Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire. Stephen Gilbert's CCHQ by-election operation is feared by the Liberal Democrats when - until recently - we feared the Liberal Democrat operation. The money is now flowing into Conservative coffers.
The best machine and the most powerful conservative message in a generation. These are exciting times to be a Conservative.