In Wednesday's Times Daniel Finkelstein called for a more positive and hopeful Conservative Party. I couldn't agree more with his premise. I've long admired the Republican Party and the way it has kept faith with Ronald Reagan's morning in America optimism.
British conservatism has not matched that positivity. It has inherited Mrs T's handbagging approach to politics. Daniel Finkelstein, who worked with William Hague from 1997 to 2001, wrote this:
"Without fully realising the choice it was making, the Tory party began to paint the skies black, became the pessimistic party. This country is being strangled by regulation and taxation, criminals are taking over our streets, family life is collapsing, immigration control is a joke, alcoholism and drug abuse is rife, the constitution is crumbling and we are being subsumed in a European super-state. Oh yes, and no one decent can go out after 8 o’clock. Eight years later it seems clear that this choice was the wrong one. And Mr Cameron’s intervention in the Sky debate suggests that he realises it too."
The intervention in last Thursday's Sky debate was recorded by Clive Davis - but more of that in a moment. DF thinks the Tory Party needs to be more hopeful about modern Britain:
"A Blue Skies party might say this — that this country is already prosperous but untold opportunities lie ahead for all if we build a flexible low-tax economy; that one of the greatest advances in social policy of the last 30 years is that we now know that crime can be beaten with the right policies and that in other countries this is happening; that immigration can be an immensely positive thing and that assimilated communities have been enormously successful and will continue to be so provided we get the system under control; that many cities outside London are booming and that there is now so much to do after 8 o’clock. I could go on, but you get the idea."
Fair enough. I agree. We need a positive, hopeful, optimistic, can do Conservatism. As Aesop's fable taught us - it's easier to get a man to take off his coat by the warmth of the sun than with the huffing and puffing of the wind. But traditional, social conservatism can be just as positively presented as libertarian Toryism. US Republicans have painted attractive and powerful pictures of strong families, drug-free lives and faith-based social action, for example.
Daniel Finkelstein appeared to imply that the real divide between Cameron and Davis in that encounter during last week's Sky debate was 'morning-versus-mourning' conservatism. I don't buy that although I agree that Cameron's disposition is helpfully closer to Reagan's. The real divide was between a Soho form of Tory modernisation and an Easterhouse approach to party renewal.
The two Davids faced question after question on lifestyle issues - not least homosexuality. Sam Coates, a friend of this site, was scheduled to ask a question on social justice but didn't get the opportunity. David Davis became visibly frustrated at one point after being encouraged yet again to let his Tory hair down on social issues. He said that the much bigger reason why Tories lost the confidence of the British people was that they appeared to be a party of the rich - in it for themselves - unconcerned about the poor. Opinion polling confirms Davis' analysis.
A 29th October YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph asked Conservative and all voters whether they supported two shifts of direction. Shift (1) was to "connect the party with modern Britain, including single mothers, ethnic minorities and gay people". Shift (2) was to "change its tax and social policies so that less help goes to the well-off and more to people on average and below average incomes".
- 49% of all voters supported Shift (1) but 30% opposed it. A positive balance of 19%.
- Only 40% of Tory voters supported Shift (1) and 44% opposed it. A negative balance of 4%.
I am one of the 49% of all voters/ 40% of Tory voters who support Shift (1). Any lack of respect for minorities is unacceptable in a modern political party but these figures suggest that these changes are not big crowd pleasers. We should be a tolerant and respectful party because it is right to be such a party but it's not the path to electoral success. Shift (2) wins a much, much more positive response:
- 74% of all voters supported Shift (2) and its emphasis on helping those on average and below average incomes. Only 10% opposed. A positive balance of 64%.
- Among Tory supporters the positive balance was 50% - 69% over 19%.
The Tory party must change. The question is 'how'? The Soho modernisers constantly emphasise issues of homosexuality and drugs. The Easterhouse modernisers propose a different kind of modernisation. They want the Conservative Party to champion the strivers. The strivers - or battlers - are those people on average or below average incomes who cannot afford Labour's stealth taxes or failure to reform the public services. They are the pensioners whose lives have been made miserable by crime.
The Easterhouse modernisers also want special attention for the very poorest. David Davis was right to say that the Conservative Party's 1997 reputation as a party for the haves, not the have-nots, did much more damage to us than any lifestyle issues.
Many on the traditional Tory right have a good record as changemakers. I think of IDS' passion for social justice. Bill Cash's campaigning against third world debt. Liam Fox's championing of human rights. The party should change and it needs to wear a smile more than a frown. But change must be the right kind of change. Going back to that Sky debate a failure to tackle the problem of binge-drinking would put the party on the wrong side of many striving families.