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Modernisation, yes. Self-flagellation, no.

By Paul Goodman
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There's a difference between modernisation...

Don Porter wrote in yesterday's Daily Telegraph that at the last election "the Tories not only failed to win over new voters but failed to win back more than three million who supported us in 1992".  I have news on that score.  Many of those voters are dead.

I am sorry to put the point so starkly, because there is much in Porter's piece which is right.  However, this slip showed a temptation to which I think he succumbed - namely, to suggest that the past is revisitable and modernisation wrong.  His policy prescription for the Conservative Party seems to be that the trinity of controlling immigration, lower taxes, and less Europe will do the trick.  These are staple ballast in any Tory diet but, alone, they don't and can't balance it.  Presented with a menu of this restricted kind in 2001 and 2005, the voters chose to eat elsewhere.

...And detoxification...

Offering them a more even diet was the original raison d'etre of this website.  Michael Gove's free schools and academies, Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms, Theresa May's elected police commissioners, Eric Pickles's transparency drive and Andrew Mitchell's programme of vaccines for children abroad are part of it.  Porter cites Shaftesbury and Disraeli approvingly.  But they were the modernisers of their time, as Edward Heath (Selsdon version) and Margaret Thatcher were in theirs.  A party can no more not modernise than a species can not evolve.  If it doesn't, it dies.

Editing ConservativeHome on Monday with half an eye on BBC Parliament's rolling repeat of the 1992 election, I mourned the pre-Blair, pre-spin politics of those times - at once less intrusive and more open.  But the door to 1992 and the years before is shut.  As is the door to 1997 - which leads me to the idea and reality of detoxification, on which Porter found firmer ground.  As practised by Tony Blair and later imitated by the Cameron leadership, it means purging yourself of what is making you unpopular.

...At least, if it is based on self-harm...

Blair's task was relatively straightforward: to junk an inheritance of unpopular policies.  He did so.  David Cameron was more testing: to correct not only policy failure (the ERM collapse and higher taxes) but personal flaws too - the chapter of errors and mishaps bundled together under the deadly label, "sleaze".  The leadership needed to apply medicine, as it were, to make the party presentable in public once again.  The cure it chose, often enough to leave lasting damage, was self-flagellation.  And beating oneself up, of course, heals nothing.

I am thinking as I write this not only of elements of the Cameron opposition approach - the presentation of the search for new Parliamentary candidates, in the form of the A List, has left a poisoned legacy behind it - but of an earlier speech by no less a figure than the Party Chairman to no less a gathering than the Party Conference.  When she declared that "you know what some people call us: the nasty party", Theresa May applied the flail publicly like a medieval penitent.  Self-help is one thing. Self-harm is quite another.

...(Which cures nothing)

There is a difference between an apology and a breakdown.  What makes it up is something to do with self-control - or, to vary the idea slightly, self-esteem.  If you don't respect yourself, others won't respect you either.  If, in a "Gerald Ratner moment", you tell the world that not only your products but you yourself are "crap", who on earth will give you the time of day, let alone vote for you?  If you balance your menu by adding greens, but then unbalance it again by removing meat - a popular through not sufficient item - what gain have you made?

This is where I stand in the debate about modernisation and detoxification, to which Iain Martin, Iain Birrell, Tim and now Porter have contributed recently.  My view is: modernisation, yes; detoxification - in the sense of self-flagellation and trashing your brand - no.  Or, as someone else once put it: no, no, no.  In case I haven't convinced you yet, I want to set out in some detail three big reasons why imitating New Labour, nearly 15 years after it first came to office, won't work and can't work.

  • Modern politics prizes authenticity.  Blair-era politics didn't, and is out of date.  Blair and Campbell strutted and spun their stuff before what the former used to describe as "the information super-highway" - what you and I call the net - really got going: before Facebook, Twitter, Bebo, Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, Iraq, good days in which to bury bad news, In The Thick of It, MPs expenses, Damian McBride, Alan Duncan being YouTubed, the publication of council spending above £500, Livingstone being forced to publish tax details - before what Team Cameron has tried to label "the post-bureaucratic age".  Voters get up close and personal on a scale unimagined even in 1997, and like what they see now even less than they did then.  They have an unerring nose for on-message politicians and carefully-crafted gambits.  There is evidence for these contentions. By the summer of 2008, Cameron's front bench had sprinkled so much detoxification salt in their cooking that the voters were waving the dishes away: only when Osborne balanced the offering by proposing inheritance tax and stamp duty cuts at that autumn's party conference did the Tory polling position recover.  The most popular politicians now are not glossy but authentic: the most vivid Conservative example being, inevitably, Boris Johnson.  In short, inauthentic self-rubbishing won't work.
  • In the Blair era, Labour voters had nowhere to the left to go.  In this era, conservative voters have a place on the right to go to - UKIP.  Or, more likely, they may not vote at all.  The trend to authenticity would matter less if voter turnout was much as in 1997.  But it isn't.  Even then it was slipping, down from 78 per cent in 1992 to 71%.  In 2001, it slumped to 59%.  In 2005, it nudged up to 61%.  In 2010, it recovered to 65%: but over a third of the electorate still didn't vote.  If former or potential Conservative voters believe that no politicians are authentic - and that all of them are the same - they simply won't vote at all.  Or as Tim argues in today's Times (£) they may plump for UKIP, the alternative on the right that Respect are on the left.  I have set out in detail on this site before the problem that UKIP poses for the Tories, for reasons that have much less to do with the EU than the party's activists claim.  If Conservative activists feel that they have no role to play in the party - other than receiving begging letters for money - they will leave.  Or, again, they may join UKIP, whose activist base is the provisional wing of the Conservative right.  To spell it out: there is no net gain in winning votes from "the centre" while simultaneously losing votes on "the right".  And no sense in seeking deliberately to do so.
  • Positions taken for the sake of detoxification - or modernisation alone for that matter - risk making you ridiculous when reversed.  And they're bad for Britain.  No political party can operate without strategy and tactics.  But politicians who obsess about both while forgetting everything else have lost their sense of perspective - and in doing so risk damaging the country they aspire to govern.  Readers will choose their own examples of policies which the party married in haste in opposition and of which it should now be repenting at leisure - or, rather, swiftly.  Mine are environment-related: the dismissal of nuclear power as a "last resort", opposition to new airport capacity in the south-east, and the green targets to which George Osborne is cooling (he is now warming to new airport capacity).  And as Porter rightly reminds us, self-flagellation has internal as well as external consequences.  Minimising further the role members play at party conferences, or in candidate selections for Westminster and Europe, or in policy-making can only speed up the shrinking of the voluntary party.  Downing Street and CCHQ are experimenting with taking their hands off the reins - the CPF is being revived - but it may all be too little, too late.

There is an objection to this position.  Isn't being pro-modernisation, but anti-detoxification - if the medicine is self-harm, at any rate - an attempt to square a circle?  Trying to have one's cake and eat it?  To which my answer is: Stephen Harper.  And John Howard.  And George W.Bush.  And - perhaps - Tony Abbott.  No successful right-of-centre leader in the Anglosphere has won and held power by trashing his own brand.

These are not, on the whole, beautiful people.  They tend to be effective rather than exciting.  But they have been elected and re-elected.  They have had their cake and eaten it.  No Conservative leader has pulled it off the same trick since the unrecoverable days of 1992.  In practice, it is difficult.  But is the principle really so hard to grasp?  What's wrong with trying to keep a grip with one hand on those who vote for you, while reaching out with the other to those who don't?


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