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Andrew Lilico: We have to make the election about us, not Labour

Lilico_andrewAndrew Lilico, former columnist for ConservativeHome, makes a new argument in favour of "the hares".

 ConservativeHome's hares versus tortoises debate has attracted quite a bit of press interest, and I had a particular perspective on it that I thought might not be without interest.

I think that the issue comes down to the following: Do we want the next General Election to be essentially about the Labour Party - so you vote for them if you approve of Gordon Brown's government and its ideas, and vote for us (we hope) if you disapprove of them - or do we want the next General Election to be about us - so you vote Conservative if you approve of us and our ideas and vote Labour (probably, or UKIP or something equally daft) if you don't approve of us?

If you want the next election to be about them, you are likely to be instinctively a tortoise in current circumstances.  After all, the Labour Party seems to be providing ample grounds for people to disapprove of it, and further such grounds may turn up if the economy goes sour.  Since Labour seems keen on losing an election that can be made about them, why should we interfere?  As Napoleon said: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

A hare, on the other hand, wants to provide people with positive reasons to vote Conservative, even at the risk of animating some people to vote another way.  He wants the election to be about us.  Just offering a more comforting version of the same ideas, promising perhaps to be a bit less incompetent than Labour (and how could we fail in that?), promising really to carry through Blairite/ Centrist/ Traditional Paternalist Conservative rhetoric into delivery ("You can get it if you really want it") does not seems guaranteed to be enough for a hare.  More than that, the hare probably believes that, at heart, Cameron is "one of us", and that if he is to enact the sort of radical programme the hare wants and that Cameron surely does believe in, then he needs a mandate; he needs to argue for it.

I want to offer a different sort of reason for being a hare.  I believe that this is essentially a Conservative country, and that all General Elections ought to be about us.  We ought only to lose General Elections when we do not deserve to win - because we have ruled poorly, because we have allowed ourselves to become incoherent, because we have been sucked down intellectual dead-ends, and so on.  If we allow General Elections to become about the Labour Party, we risk creating a very different kind of British society - one that is not at core Conservative; one that does not elect a Conservative government every time there is a coherent and competent Conservative government on offer.  We must not allow the public to become used to the thought that what matters is what they think about Labour.  The public must think that the issue of whom, precisely, to vote for (Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP, whoever) only arises once it has decided (on those few occasions) not to vote Conservative.

I believe that Conservatives lie at the forefront of the battle of ideas, and that we should believe in ourselves.  We should believe that if we offer Conservatism, and we offer it well and with integrity, then we will be elected.  Once we start to think that we must not state what we really believe, that to be elected we must look and sound enough like Socialists, that our policies must appeal to a Socialist mindset, and so on, then the Conservative Cause is more than half lost.  For even if we win, what then?  We must hold power to achieve anything, and it has become accepted that to hold power we must not really be Conservatives, so just as we were elected as not-quite-Conservatives we must govern as not-quite-Conservatives.

We must not imagine we can sidle our way into power, not exposing our true spots, and then say "Aha, you fools!  You've gone and elected true Conservatives without realising it!"  The public is not so easily fooled.  The Conservative Party has not ceased to be the deeply ideological Party it has been (and become more so over time) these past twenty years - and why should it, for we have been proved right by events and our opponents have taken every opportunity given to prove themselves wrong?!  Of course many changes were needed (as I have argued many times before) - it is just pitiful to dismiss the arguments of the hares by saying "We tried that in 2001 and 2005, and look where it got us" (if only it were true!).

The 2005 General Election was the first in at least a generation that was about the Labour Party - did you like Tony Blair because of the economy, or hate him because of Iraq?  2001 was all about us, as was 1997, 1992, and 1987.  In 1983 the election was probably mainly about us, though there was also some element of being anti a poorly organised Labour Party (not that that helped our opinion poll ratings in 1981).  The 1979 General Election was the last one that might possibly have been about Labour.  But going back, the vast majority of the elections since the second world war, even when the Conservative Party was in opposition, were about the Conservative Party.  For this is a Conservative country.

We will get elected if we offer Conservatism and if we also deserve to be elected as Conservatives.  We should never let anyone - tortoise or otherwise - tell us different.


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