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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Should Conservatives risk radicalism to win properly in 2015?

It may seem too early to be considering strategies for the 2015 campaign, but today's electoral maths makes an overall a majority a mountain to climb, so if that's the destination, the preparations for the ascent need to be laid pretty soon.

There are many who believe a robust majority for the Conservatives is nearly impossible. About a third of votes now go to the smaller parties, so to achieve the winning proportions of an earlier era - maybe 45% - implies a better than 2-to-1 split of Conservatives to Labour. That's plain unthinkable. Nor would a slight weakening of the LibDem vote be enough (my guess is that the LibDems would outperform their current polling numbers because at this stage of the electoral cycle, polls cannot accurately reflect tactical voting intentions) because the distribution means they and the other smaller parties will still win a significant number of seats. So merely edging Labour cannot possibly deliver real victory: there are two preconditions to Conservatives winning an overall majority, and one of the is the routing of the LiDems.

The other precondition is that when voters walk into the polling booths they feel confident the economy is fixed. But then, of course, the LibDems will get credit too, probably enough to keep them secure in their strongholds. It's surely a too tricky hand to play: you need the genuine support of your coalition partners to deliver economic growth while simultaneously plotting to kill them off at the end of the day. If your top priority is to remain in government, you may conclude this is just too risky: you need the LibDems now so you'll need them in 2015 as well.

However, if your main ambition is not just survival but actually transforming Britain, if you're willing to raise the stakes for a proper Parliamentary majority, and thereby accept the increased risk of losing the more limited power you have now, then what you need is a mire radical Conservative strategy focusing on the big issues.

One talks of 'change' as if it's obviously desirable. But surely most people are small-c conservatives, not progressives - does anyone outside a small splinter of radical activists actually warm to this risk-laden theme of transformation?

YouGov ran a survey asking people how much change they want across a number of public services that activists might regard as ripe for reform. The survey options for each area were: "Does not need any change at all; needs some improvements or investment but the way it is run is correct; needs some minor reforms and changes to the way it is run; needs major changes in the whole way it is run." Here are the figures for the two 'change' options, the first being for 'major change': Prisons and justice (57%, 22%); Pensions (49%, 25%); NHS (37%, 26%); Higher education (31%, 30%); Schools (26%, 31%); Police (24%, 34%).

It's a surprisingly strong result, especially given these anxious times. If you combine the numbers for both ''minor reform" and "major change", you get majorities in every single area. People clearly don't think public services are good enough; they are at least open to new ideas.

In some ways it's also an irrational result. The greatest enthusiasm for change is in how we deal with criminals; but in-depth deliberative polling we've conducted on sentencing shows that in real-life cases, when we take respondents through the facts of typical individual trials, the public turns out to be less severe than the actual judges. On the other hand, our poll shows far less appetite for major change in our schools, and yet Michael Gove's truly radical reforms are in full flow without raising serious protest - compare with the uproar at proposals to change forestry and planning.

The example of school reform tells us that radical change is perfectly possible. It has been conducted by a team truly devoted to the cause - planned with confidence, communicated with clarity, and executed with determination. There has been no hedging. The result is a fundamental reform that may well improve education and turn out to be an electoral asset.

So why avoid radicalism in other areas? Perhaps because it's so hard to do well. It needs determination, organisation, constant strategic thinking and a tight group of co-conspirators. It needs a lot of talent and energy. Anything less, and it will go wrong. Political parties these days are just not equipped to fight battles on too many fronts, even if all of those battles would, on their own, be winnable.

If the aim is to 'ransform Britain', we must also transform our level of political activism. Over the last thirty years, participation in organised political activity has diminished, while the state bureaucracy has grown. Power has moved decisively towards the professional administrators. It's difficult for political leaders to get things done. Even minor proposals for change turn out to be disallowed when legal officers become involved. Not only is business caught up in red tape - our political process itself is subject to a web of regulations. Any minister who wants to truly change something will soon become worn out. They then face frustration from their own supporters. Enthusiasm among party members has become rare. It's a downward spiral.

Leaders naturally find it easier to focus their efforts on symbolic gestures, the one area where they still exercise real control. Of course, messaging is genuinely important; communication is half the job of a politician; but the other half is delivering change. If that is to be achieved, then we need first to change the nature of the political system. The manifesto offered by the Conservatives at the last election was titled, "An Invitation to join the Government of Britain". We need to renew our efforts to increase participation in politics, not by turning the clock back, but by embracing the new opportunities offered by the web.


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