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Ryan Shorthouse: Optimism is crucial for Conservatives

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

Tories are a bit more cheery. Well, on domestic matters, certainly. The painful fiscal plan finally seems to be working: various indicators in recent weeks suggest Britain is bordering on healthier economic times.

Sure, Cameron can’t get cocky. Serious problems need confronting: the squeeze on living standards for those on modest incomes, most notably. But ignore those who advise Cabinet members to moderate positivity. Optimism is crucial for Conservatives.

The British Conservative Party has been most successful electorally when it offers the hope of a better future, especially for those on modest incomes. Think Macmillan’s 1959 Election victory, based on a decade of rises in the wage of industrial workers who “never had it so good”. Or Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy in the 1980s, which was so popular because it enabled thousands of people living in council houses to achieve their dream of home ownership.

Very soon, the Chancellor should champion an emerging boom and promise future tax cuts and an increase in the minimum wage for working families who have persevered through austerity.

Such a strategy risks overconfidence being levelled at Tories, but the worse  – and more accurate – criticism is that of a tendency to be cynical. Too many in our Party fall to this: to sound uncomfortable and disappointed with the modern world, believing it to be disordered and sullied. Immigration, secularism, homosexuality: these and more are supposedly dragging Britain under. Call it UKIPitis.

Let’s expose this for what it is. First, wrong: on a whole range of indicators, from personal finances to standards of health, life is getting better for most over the long-term. Second, sneering: not at an impersonal entity, ‘the modern world’, but the people who live in it, with all our diversity and complexities. It is deeply patronising.

Right-wing politics like this belittles and excludes people. Notable moments in Conservative Party history as a result of this ugly mindset include the anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 and Section 28 of the Local Government Act which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. The Party today is still building bridges with these respective and growing communities, still hampering its political chances.

We need to invite people in, not shut them out. This answers another lingering problem with the contemporary Conservative Party – the perception that it is protective of the interests of the well-heeled, rather than extending opportunities for prosperity to all.  From now until the election, it must prioritise new, bold policies that open doors for the less privileged.

Conservatism is at its most inspiring when it says it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, but what you do. Work hard, be kind and responsible, and you should and will be rewarded, eventually. Your values, not your identity, is what matters. Simple. Compelling.

Not only does the narrative take on the reactionary right, but the pessimism of the left, which spreads the idea that people’s life chances are largely determined by factors out of their control such as poverty and inequality, rather than individual will and resourcefulness. This leads to identity politics, where certain social groups are asked to be view and treated differently, perpetuating stereotypes and fuelling division. No. It doesn’t have to be like this. Today’s Conservatism should be hopeful about all human potential, encouraging all to unite around enduring values.

There is a space for the modern Conservative Party here: to be a party for optimists - about the future of individual people and also our country.  It is clear way to differentiate ourselves from our political opponents: after all, our time in Government has encouraged Labour, and the Liberal Democrats to a certain extent, to be constant bugbears resisting ambitious reform – free schools or the Universal Credit – rather than creators of imaginative policies.

Give us some more optimism, David. This is the way to inspire those who have traditionally shunned us to vote Conservative in 2015.


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