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Ryan Shorthouse: We need a second wave of modernisation

Shorthouse RyanRyan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Last weekend, over 100 people joined Bright Blue at our “Tory modernisation 2.0” conference to discuss the future of the Conservative Party. It was an incredibly positive, creative atmosphere and delegates were brimming with new ideas about the future of the Party and Britain.  

We were joined by talented and thoughtful speakers: David Willetts MP, Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Sam Gymiah MP, Jane Ellison MP, Kris Hopkins MP, Liz Truss MP, the RSA’s Matthew Taylor, Phillip Blond of Respublica, Conservative Future’s Ben Howlett, David Skelton of Policy Exchange, Janan Ganesh of the Economist, and Rohan Silva and Shaun Bailey from Number 10.

Bright Blue is a movement that brings together activists, councillors and MPs to champion liberal, progressive Conservatism. We want the Party to proudly stand for two dispositions: first, the spreading of power, freedom and opportunity – a vision shared with liberals. Second, compassion for others, especially vulnerable people, through strong relationships and active communities. David Willetts expressed this beautifully in his keynote speech to the conference: “If the first principle is about wings the second is about roots”.

Yes, we are the party of business, entrepreneurialism and individual initiative. But we’re also the party that recognises the importance of belonging, family and charity. There is more to life than self-advancement and self-enrichment, important as they are. Duty to and love for others is just as rewarding, if not more. This is why issues such as social mobility, childcare and same-sex marriage cannot be outsourced to the Liberal Democrats. They are issues about both freedom and empathy, opportunity and kindness, issues that matter deeply to people, which Conservatives should be passionate about.

The modernisation of the Conservative Party after 2005 under the leadership of David Cameron was right and vital. But it wasn’t enough to enable the Party to govern alone. Many voters remain unconvinced that the Party represented compassion and open-mindedness, and would help those in poverty and on low-and middle-incomes. As Lord Ashcroft's Project Blueprint shows, this perception still persists today. 

That’s why Bright Blue believes we now need a second wave of modernisation to appeal to those who are not only passionate about what the Conservative Party can deliver, but also those who still remain sceptical about what the Party stands for – this includes, for example, ethnic minorities, low-income groups, younger people and many people in urban areas, especially in the North of England. The Party needs to reach out to these people and persuade them of the goodness of our ideas, that why we are motivated by our hearts as well as our heads.

This is especially critical in the years ahead. Now and in the foreseeable future, public money will be short. An ageing population, the consequences of climate change and a sluggish and increasingly globalised economy are long-term challenges requiring innovative solutions. Conservative approaches remain the most credible: fiscal sustainability, public service reform, encouraging entrepreneurship and the decentralisation of decision-making.

Plenty of bold ideas were proposed at the conference. People were positive about academies and free schools, but believed the Government should enable the for-profit sector to play a role in schools. Some suggested we need more immigration, not less. We’d get more fairness between the generations if we take away benefits for wealthier pensioners and use the money in a better way. A neo-conservative approach to foreign affairs was widely condemned. The “Big Society” was still popular; but Conservatives should be celebrating and helping its manifestations, most notably the NHS, not rubbishing them or starving them of support.

The party should zealously support new businesses and plurality of provision in public services, recognising the limits of understanding by contemporary society and government, and how much more we could know if we let new ideas and creative people flourish. However, we should make the state an empowering friend, not see it is an evil enemy that needs to be repeatedly attacked. 

David Cameron’s premiership was just the beginning for Tory modernisation. As Willetts commented: “You don’t just do modernisation once — you keep on at it”. The Bright Blue conference brought together a new generation who believe Conservative means can truly deliver progressive ends. Bright Blue wants to open a new chapter - Tory modernisation 2.0. Fresh thinking is needed on economic and social policy – indeed, we cannot let modernisation be unfairly categorised as the obsessions of so-called metropolitan liberals, but a project which is about making Conservatism relevant, inspiring and uniting to people from different walks of life. Above all, we need the Party to be an inclusive, optimistic movement, which people from all backgrounds can proudly support and which stands for two core values: individual ambition and caring communities.


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