Jon Cruddas reviews Britannia Unchained in the Guardian today. As you might expect he is not overly impressed by the manifesto penned by a fistful of the Tory party’s “rising stars”. But Cruddas is always worth paying attention to. Anyway, his article reminded me that I’d been meaning to write something about Isabel Hardman’s revealing interview with Chris Skidmore (one of the Famous Five responsible for Britannia Unchained) that Coffee House published last week.
Skidmore told Isabel that:
‘The Conservative party has always had this fear of being seen as the so-called Nasty Party. I totally discount that. The fact is you have [in different parts of the world] governments on completely different parts of the political spectrum being bold, accepting the challenges of the future and meeting them head on.’
Bold is one of those words, like radical, that reformers and pundits love not wisely but too well. It sounds so much better and so much more exciting than cautious, incremental change. Prudence is for wimps.
So, it seems, is popularity. It is, of course, true that governments cannot govern in fear and that they will – nay must – often be unpopular. Nevertheless there is a difference between accepting that, in the short-term, decisions may prove controversial or unpopular and relishing unpopularity.
One sometimes suspects there’s a strain within the Conservative party that believes there’s a strong correlation between a policy’s wisdom and its popularity. That is, the more unpopular a policy the better it is. There’s an unappealing swaggering machismo to this kind of thing that leads to claims that if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working.
No pain, no gain may be fine at the gym but it’s a less useful frame for politics not least because burning fat in politics inevitably means burning people. This may, in the long-run, be necessary for a better, healthier future but it comes at a cost. Voters, moreover, can see that cost and are not likely to be impressed by politicians who appear indifferent to it.
This applies across many policy areas. The conservative fondness for grammar schools and educational selection is not ignoble in itself but it does rather reinforce the notion, always ready to germinate, that the Tory party is not as concerned by the fate of those left behind by grammar schools as it could or should be.
I’ve written before that the Tory party – or at least a considerable part of it – has an empathy problem. Skidmore’s interview with Isabel reinforces this. No sensible party should want to be considered the “Nasty Party”. Bragging about nastiness is even worse! It places you perilously close to writing off, say, 47% of the country (to choose a quite random number). It suggests you don’t actually like people very much.
Another article in the Guardian today, this time by Michael Dugher, Labour MP for Barnsley East, offers further warnings to the Tories. The north-south divide threatens Tory hopes of ever winning a workable parliamentary majority. Doubtless the Conservatives can make some gains in the south-east and the midlands but they must, surely, be closer to their ceiling in those regions. Which means they need to be more competitive north of the Trent.
Yet there is a sense, unfair perhaps but nonetheless real, that Tory policy is too obsessed with measures that would disproportionately benefit the south-east. Dugher, of course, is not a neutral commentator but that scarcely means he’s wrong about everything. For instance:
Conservative strategists are right to be worried. Cameron’s failure to win a majority at the last election can be put down, at least in part, to his failure to convince large parts of Britain, especially outside the south of England, that his was a changed Conservative party.
Does anyone doubt this? It’s not a question of a struggle between Modernisers and so-called Mainstream Conservatives, rather an example of how the Tory party has not yet managed to find ways of speaking to the whole country. If it’s a One Nation party these days it is only barely so.
Which is one reason why it’s not a terribly good idea for Conservative advisers to write reports that can be characterised – however fairly – as “writing-off” entire northern cities. It’s why though there’s a decent case for increasing some public sector salaries – especially teachers’ – in the south, cutting those salaries in the north is liable to prove a political disaster. It would certainly allow the party to bask in unpopularity!
Toughness is another one of those words thrusting young radicals wear as a badge of pride. Fine. No-one is asking for a soft government. Nevertheless, successful governments take the people with them. Appreciating people’s reasonable fears and concerns doesn’t mean “mollycoddling” the public. It means understanding that many of those concerns are real and, just as importantly, reasonable.
Imagine being a brightish teenager in, say, Hull. Imagine that the kid is at a decent but not spectacularly excellent school. He wants to go university but is worried by the prospect of emerging from uni more than £30,000 in debt. Imagine this kid’s father was laid-off from work last year and has been struggling to find full-time employment since then. Imagine his mother has a middling job in local government. Imagine how this kid feels about a government that’s likely to remove tax credits his family has previously enjoyed, has made university at least seem much more expensive than it had been previously, wants to remove already-flimsy employee protection and appears to consider public sector workers something not much higher on the evolutionary scale than leeches.
And remember that political allegiances are often formed at a young age. What’s the government’s message to this kid and his family? Note too that this is hardly an extreme hypothetical but a pretty average one.
How impressed is this family going to be with all this talk of toughness and doing the difficult thing? Many people’s worries are reasonable. They need grounds for hope, not evidence their fears are justified.
Again, this isn’t a matter of the government’s policies necessarily being wrong. This (imaginary) family appreciates that the deficit must be reduced. But it wonders why the Conservative party is so agitated by apparently esoteric matters such as a third runway at Heathrow or why the conservative press is so adamant that the most urgent matter of business in the budget was reducing tax rates for the wealthiest 5% of Britons. Is that the way to build trust?
A communications problem often actually masks a policy problem. But even when this is not the case there’s no doubt at all that being considered the Nasty Party and being seen to be just-fine-with-that-thanks is a more than rum approach to government. Politics is a communications business and it’s bizarre so many MPs and ministers seem to forget that.
You won’t make progress on big issues – such as education or welfare reform – unless you persuade people your intentions are noble and, then but only then, you have lit upon the right means towards achieving those ends.
If voters get the sense that politicians think the voters are part of the problem they won’t be impressed by those politicians. This should be obvious. Sadly it doesn’t always seem to be.
Tags: Conservatives, UK politics