There are two things we on the left must remember about the Conservative party:
Firstly they did not win the last election outright, they needed the Liberal Democrats for a majority (though we do, to be fair, always remind ourselves of this).
The second, most importantly, is that they are having just as much an identity crisis as the Labour party were after the (supposed) Blair/Brown divide. Even now, two years into government.
Consequently, discussions within the Conservative party itself are not simply occupied with the question of how to secure a majority in 2015, but with what values it ought to display to the electorate.
These values can’t draw too steeply away from Conservative principles, but must be popular enough to bring wide appeal.
One place where this conversation was being had over the last weekend was with the Bright Blue Group – an organisation which aims to mobilise grassroots energy to campaign for “progressive conservative” policies in government.
At the Hub, in Westminster, the group came together in order to discuss Tory modernisation 2.0: the future of the Conservative party – with an eye to debating future political strategy at the next election and beyond.
David Willetts, who provided the keynote speech of the day, proved himself to be the person most worthy of discussing, first hand, the evolution of modern Conservatism.
Willetts ensured his place as a key Conservative thinker back in 1994 with his text Civic Conservatism, which aimed to tackle the critique of the Conservatives as being the party unable to “understand life beyond laissez-faire”, as he put it.
Indeed Willetts demonstrated in his speech that to modernise one’s beliefs, in the way that he tried to show the Conservative party as doing back in the nineties, is one of the most crucial aspects of Conservatism.
“As you get older, you put down roots and are perhaps not so attracted by the strenuous disruptive power of the market.”
A tradition that has found re-entry into the political landscape in all parties since Blair, from communitarianism to the big society.
• The ‘squeezed middle’ hold the key to victory in 2015 14 Jul 2012
Willetts of course did not settle the big potato today, which is the problem of the Tories receiving half its funding from “big finance”. Setting out the principle of social change as being something key to Conservative party politics, Willetts’ speech gave clear way for sessions during the rest of the day to demonstrate what changes and what strategies were geared up in the party over the coming years.
The problem, as is the case with so many events like this, was that the discussion waned slightly, instead finding it easier to focus on why the last election wasn’t won for them, and why the big ideas, which were to make this one of the most radical governments ever (Gove and his Maoism, Maude and his Marxism), have not been communicated or carried out adequately (on this, one discussion I had, for example, found various party members agreeing that Osborne ought to go).
During the discussion with Philip Blond on the big society, Jonty Olliff-Cooper who was chairing asked the room whether they liked the idea of big society.
All present gave a thumbs up to Big Society (myself included – which might demonstrate its merits as a vague policy), but when asked whether the name was quite right most turned their thumbs down.
What this means, for Blond, who was open about this, is that the idea was not implemented or communicated in a way that could unlock its true potential.
For Blond, the notion of big society needs to stay as part of the next Conservative election focus, because what underlies it is sound politics that, though haven’t gained traction, have proved to be consistent with the way in which UK politics is headed (if you consider from the Labour side the excitement around the mutual moment).
Blond is enthused and clearly angered by the fact that the greatest indicator of one’s future success is likely to be pegged to the postcode one is born in. For this reason the fruits of the country’s wealth need to be dispersed further, showing that big society as a theory really is more than just going out and picking up rubbish yourself.
But critics might still stay suspicious that it was picked up by the Tories as a veil to cover a rollback of the state that impeded people’s lives.
Speaking to Nick Denys, blogger at Platform 10 and the Kernel Mag, I opined that the Tories had interesting mood music in the big society but perhaps the problem with implementation was who was doing it – perhaps Steve Hilton was unable to re-communicate big society in practical terms himself.
Denys largely agreed:
“Hilton himself was of course a blue sky thinker… What the Tories need now is a chief executive figure who can unpack the philosophy better”.
He admitted to me that in the last election party activists had trouble communicating the big society vision on the doorstep. I pointed out that for me this was to big society’s merit in a way – since by its very nature it is a bottom-up policy that could give space for local branches to concentrate on what people find irksome in their communities.
While Denys agreed, he noted that this wasn’t properly communicated from the start, making big society look not only vague but hollow.
What this highlighted to me was that even these Tories in Bright Blue who are given space to think and strategise are still occupied by inward self-reflection. Indeed one person I spoke to joked that the stock answer to most of his questions during the day was the very limited line: “we need to mobilise the activist base”.
The whole day was not entirely devoid of future ideas for the Conservative party, however. David Skelton, Policy Exchange’s deputy director, proved extremely interesting in analysing why Tories lose so many votes from 18-24 year olds and what they can do to start getting them back.
For him the key kernel is to start making vocational education back on par with university education, which will do much to help prospects of young people today, and is of course something palatable for the left as well the right.
But if I’m honest Skelton’s contribution was rather rare for the day. Though, maybe this is hardly surprising. Reflection can be good, and often political strategy has to play a long game – after all 2015 is still 3 years away.
However it does seem the only tool in these Tories’ box is how better to relay existing ideas to the voter – and we should always question the wisdom of such airy opinion.