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A measly 5% of Britons would vote for an anti-state party and it's time for all Tories to drop the libertarian language

By Tim Montgomerie
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Last month ConHome asked YouGov to ask people which of three visions of a society they were most attracted to. The exact question was:

"Which of the three following visions of society most appeals to you? Even if none describe exactly the society you would like, please say which one comes closest to your ideal?"

  • Nearly a quarter (24%) chose what might be called a socialist vision of the good society - which in the survey we defined as "A society where government plays a big role in society, taking a large role in running the economy and people’s lives and directing jobs, welfare and housing to create a good society".
  • A measly 5% chose a libertarian brave new world - which our question described as "a society where individuals are almost completely free of both government control and assistance, and rely entirely on themselves, their families and job creators to make a good society".
  • The top option was a mixed economy - chosen by 61% of respondents: "A society where government plays a limited role in society, providing services and a safety net in hard times but where we largely rely on families, education and job creators to create a good society".

No doubt some libertarians would say I mischaracterised their position and perhaps I have. Perhaps a slight change in the way in which the question was posed would have increased that 5% to 6, 7, 8 or even 10%! I would urge readers not to quibble pointlessly with the specifics of the question, however, but ponder on the broad implications of the results. Voters aren't anti-State. Most voters (95% in this poll) want some role for government. When Conservatives are constantly bashing government it puts middle-of-the-road, moderate people off and it frightens people who depend upon government help for part or all of their income - or who, may be wholly independent today, but who wouldn't want the safety-net dismantled.


I look at these themes in my column for today's Times (£). I'm not saying Tories should simply accept the Gordon Brown settlement of a large client state. Not at all. In my Times article I recommend we do three things:

We must look at ways of increasing blue collar wages so that fewer people need state help. This is what I think Ed Miliband means by predistribution. The Coalition is actually already doing important work on this front. Limiting immigration of low skilled labour and investment in apprenticeships are, I'd say, its flagship policy areas in this regard. I'd also highlight Lord (Kenneth) Baker's vision of technical colleges in every major city for 14 to 18 year-olds and Nick Boles' ideas on housebuilding. Until we have more homes in the parts of the country where there is work housing costs will keep lower waged people dependent upon housing benefit and other forms of state assistance.

Cutting supply of government services without first putting something in their place is unsustainable. We need to look at the other side of the equation and focus on the demand for government. Until people don't need help from government or have better sources of help the individual and collective clamour for interventions will be hard for politicians to resist. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation, adult reskilling and family mediation services are examples of preventative programmes. Tax reliefs for extended family care and for provision by not-for-profit organisations are examples of building up alternative sources of care.

Thirdly Conservatives need to make it absolutely clear that we don't oppose all state benefits. More than that we need to make it clear that it is a privilege to provide taxpayer-funded help to the genuinely needy. Here's how I ended my Times column:

"Conservatives need to drop the anti-State rhetoric. Ensuring comfortable retirements for pensioners, benefits for the sick and assistance for genuine jobseekers shouldn’t be afterthoughts for Conservatives but central to their electoral pitch. Conservatives shouldn’t see these things as a necessary evil but as a privilege for a decent society to provide and for a decent party to enhance. When Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic are as serious about blue-collar wages as the deficit and as serious about cutting taxes on the low-paid as on the propertied class, they will start winning elections again. But not until then."

To avoid any doubt: I want a smaller state. I want that smaller state because we can't afford the one we have and dependence on the state often means people aren't fulfilling their potential... but we have sometimes allowed anti-State rhetoric to consume the rest of our broader message. People out there crave security as much as freedom. They want help from government as much as they want it out of their way. They fear market forces at least much as they revere them. Fellow Conservatives - that is what we are - we are Conservatives, not libertarians. We believe in a limited, targeted, efficient and sometimes strong state. Ours is not an anti-State philosophy and our party must not be perceived as an anti-State party.


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