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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Do party conference speeches matter? Only a tiny, tiny bit.

Conservatives are more radical than progressives. That is the conclusion from poll we published yesterday about desire for major changes in public services. OK, no surprise really, as Conservatives will view 'change' as undoing decades of leftist drift. On average across the areas we surveyed, 42% of Conservative voters, 32% of Labour voters, and 30% of LibDem voters supported fundamental reform.

The most radical of Conservatives is Steve Hilton, who last month came with his team from No 10 to speak at the YouGov-Cambridge forum. He was passionate and lucid about the way he expects Britain to change as a consequence of openness and transparency. He's committed himself to ensuring Britain occupies top spot in the soon-to-be-created international league table of openness and transparency. For him, openness isn't a nice-to-have modern attitude, it's a vital driver of economic growth: how else can you unlock the productive potential of individuals, other than by creating more and more opportunities for people to connect, argue, compete and co-operate? You can't just rely on government to deliver productivity, government is best when it frees up the way for others.

CameronBeingClappedByShadCa That's a traditional conservative attitude which few Conservatives these days seem to share: the idea that we cannot wait on politicians to make things happen. Instead, all the activists are waiting for the next big speech. There's an absurdity in those constant calls for Cameron to 'tell us what he's really about' as if that's what the nation desperately needs, an insight into the great leader's pysche. Who cares what Cameron is really about? You'll never know, and if you did it wouldn't make any difference. Yes, it's better that Cameron give a good speech rather than a bad speech; but Tony Blair gave plenty of fabulous speeches. He told us what he was about, which helped him win elections but, to his frankly expressed regret, it didn't help him transform Britain.

The point isn't that good speeches don't matter; in the electoral maths, they matter a tiny, tiny bit and of course unless you get elected you can't do things in government. But according to ONS figures American productivity is 23% higher than that of the UK; even that's trivial compared to the historic challenge facing the west from the east; and it's not obvious how we'll meet it. Waiting to discover what Cameron is truly 'about' and hoping it's revealed in his next speech is not only idiocy, it's detrimental to the bigger cause.

Hilton would surely agree; although he too would prefer a good speech to a bad speech, his declared mission is to 'change everything', by which he means turn things upside down: stop waiting for Number 10 to fix your hospital and make it possible for you to fix it yourself. Sometimes he's derided for his vision of the 'post-bureacratic age', but the 'fix everything from the centre' attitude is precisely what made Gordon Brown fail so badly, and which we all hated. We know that politicians almost never fix things; so why do we keep clamouring for it like little children? Do we think one set of governors are bad and another set of governors are good? How Conservative is that?

I don't say politicians don't make a difference. But Gove will improve schools by giving them back to parents and teachers. Iain Duncan Smith will improve competitiveness by ensuring people in work are always better off than being on welfare. Osborne will strengthen the economy by spending less. They will not themselves 'deliver' anything, all they can do is clear the way for others. It's a classic Conservative philosophy which can now be turbo-charged by the technology of connection. No-one thinks it strange using the Internet to deliver all kinds of products and services faster, better and cheaper. It's our best engine for greater productivity. Why apply it everywhere except government? What's so good about a speech?


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