Conservative Diary

« Tory MP tells Clegg to stop "whinging" | Main | Why Cameron shouldn't and won't try to force a general election soon »

Conservatives can win the poverty debate but not if the Big Society is our message

By Tim Montgomerie

Over the weekend Policy Exchange (PX) published some very important polling. I've summarised it over at ThinkTankCentral. The YouGov/ PX findings show that Conservatives can win the argument about poverty because on many key issues voters side with our party's instincts:

  • The most popular ways of tackling poverty are reducing unemployment, cutting tax on low earners, controlling inflation and improving schools (the Coalition is focused on all of these things);
  • Cutting tuition fees, banning private schools and raising benefits are the least popular (and effective) anti-poverty policies;
  • By 71% to 16% people distinguish between deserving and undeserving forms of poverty;
  • 80% support workfare;
  • By two-to-one voters support measures to discourage lone parenthood.

Labour's approach to poverty - an ever larger welfare state and public sector bureaucracy - has reached the end of the road. On at least ten fronts Labour is now on the wrong side of the poverty debate - becoming the party of vested interests rather than the party of the poor.

A big barrier to us winning this debate is Number 10's continued attachment to the idea of the Big Society. Don't get me wrong. Intellectually I agree with the idea. I think I can claim to be the person who first wrote "there is such a thing as society, it's just not the state". For Conservatives the Burkean or people-sized institutions that bind individuals together are the basis of civilisation and care. But the BS idea just isn't catching on at a popular level. Every week some blogger or pundit attempts a new definition. Last week Julian Glover had another interesting go. But no pundit or prime ministerial relaunch moves the public. 56% of voters still don't know what it means.

Stubbornly insisting that the public must get the idea has two big downsides:
  1. Sinking huge amounts of energy (party conference speeches, Downing Street war room operations and so on) into selling the Big Society for the Xth time is energy that can't be spent on selling a better description of what Conservatives and the Coalition are doing;
  2. Without that strong narrative the idea that the government is all about cuts has no serious alternative and goes unchallenged.

Screen shot 2011-04-25 at 23.10.51The Big Society phrase should still appear in speeches and the thinking behind it should still permeate government but it should no longer be at the heart of political strategy. The Policy Exchange poll points us towards the messages that should be at the heart of political strategy. The PX findings are actually remarkably similar to polling that YouGov carried out for the Conservative Party in 2002 to 2003 when IDS was leader and I was at Conservative Central Office. We had been running the "Help The Vulnerable" campaign but that language tested badly. What tested well (and we should never forget that Team Cameron never tested the Big Society) was...

  • fairness to those who need help and those who provide help;
  • focusing all available resources on the genuinely needy, particularly the old, sick and disabled; and
  • helping people who do the right thing (ie those who build strong families, those who learn skills and those who in work, not on welfare).

In summary I believe the Conservative message of compassion and aspiration should be The Three Paths To Success: Family, Education, Jobs.

Or a slightly longer version: To succeed in life every person needs the support of their families, they need a good education and they need paid work. Conservatives will help people to succeed in those things and there'll always be a safety net for those who don't.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.