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(3/10) The Conservative message needs to be more balanced; 50% strength and 50% compassion

By Tim Montgomerie
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Last week in Birmingham I presented a ten step plan to deliver the first Conservative majority since 1992. The plan is summarised on the new website.  Parts one and two of the plan were published yersterday. Part four will be published later today.

(Step 3) The Conservative message needs to be more balanced; 50% strength and 50% compassion

At he heart of this ConservativeHome plan to win the next election are three Ms: Message, Manifesto and Machine. We need to refresh all three. We need a manifesto that addresses the great economic and social challenges of our time. We need a machine that ensures we have a better get-out-the-vote and voter contact operation. And we need a message that resonates.
What is our current message? What is our brand? Are we the party of competitive capitalism or of big business? Are we primarily the party of freedom (protecting civil liberties and cutting the size of the state) or are we the party of control (restricting immigration and taking a tough approach to crime)? Are we a pro-EU or EU-sceptical party? Are we the party that emphasises individual liberty or family and community bonds? Are we a party that thinks most about the aspirational classes and those young people starting off in life or do we lean towards protecting those who already have homes, pensions and savings? Are we the party of Thatcherism or of Cameron? Are we an ideological or pragmatic party? We are probably a hotpotch of all of these things but it is a hotpotch. Our identity is not particularly clear. It is probably accurate to say that most British people do see us as the party of Thatcherism. A tough-minded party. Largely southern and pro-market. Slightly old-fashioned. The party that the country turns to after Labour has messed things up.

David Cameron has, of course, tried to suggest the big Conservative idea is the Big Society. Intellectually it is a compelling idea - we are, after all, the party of Edmund Burke and therefore the party of the small platoons that lie between the individual and the state. But it’s not an idea that has captured the public imagination or has been successful on the doorstep.

The process behind ConHome’s majority project is set out in point ten of this plan. We are at the beginning of the process and haven’t got all of the answers to many of the questions we are raising but our early intuitions – informed by early polling research – is the simple suggestion that we start to craft ourselves as the party of strength and compassion. We start to think of ourselves as a party equally committed to prosperity and solidarity. We should observe what we might call the 50% rule. 50% of the time we reinforce our Thatcher era strength as the party that does tough things. We cut waste, we support entrepreneurs, we fight crime, we control immigration, we are intolerant of welfare fraud. We are the party of what Shirley Robin Letwin called the “vigorous virtues”. But for the other 50% of the time we address the concern that we might be the party of the head but we’re insufficiently the party of the heart. 50% of the time we must focus on social justice. We need to convince people that we won’t abandon them in tough times.

Becoming a party of solidarity means that there has to be a realisation that it’s not enough to be the party of aspiration. Solidarity includes a commitment to the NHS, a commitment to the basic state pension, a commitment to help people who’ve fallen on hard times and a commitment to never, ever give up on people. Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic rightly love stories of people who’ve broken through glass ceilings, who’ve triumphed against the odds and have travelled from the wrong side of the tracks to the top of society. But most people will never rise high and fast. Most people want a helping hand from government rather than a government that leaves them alone. Once we’ve cut the waste from the welfare state Conservatives should never resent the safety-net. We should rejoice in it. It is a privilege to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. Moreover, as the economy recovers we should look to ensure the old, the sick and the disabled share in the nation’s bounceback. If we are to spend 50% of our time talking about strength and compassion we should also ensure that 50% of our compassionate message isn’t about providing ladders for the low-paid but also about improving the safety-net for those who will always need society’s help. We should present austerity as, yes, necessary for international competitiveness but also as essential for the survival of public services. The greater threat to world class health and education provision isn’t today’s cuts but doing nothing to reduce what will otherwise be tomorrow’s escalating debt payments. Labour’s claim that Conservative want to bury public provision could not be more inaccurate. Only our reforms and the Coalition’s deficit reduction plan can put the NHS and our education system on a sustainable footing.


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