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All over the place

    Perhaps more than at any other point in modern memory, the Conservative movement is being pulled in many different directions. How can these competing political voices coalesce into one successful vision for the Party as a whole? Dr Kieron O’Hara explores the various strands of thought. 

    Conservative politics are all over the place at the moment, with solutions ranging from the white van to bright blue. How to move on from the failure to win a majority in 2010 is still up for dispute – do the Conservatives accept they have limited legitimate authority and moderate their policies to appeal to a centrist electorate, or is the lukewarm support an implicit criticism of the lack of conviction, suggesting a strong push for signature policies?

    This characterisation implies a relatively straightforward two-dimensional policy continuum from populist policies on prices (especially fuel duty), immigration, the EU and tax cuts, to a bien pensant suite of ideas about greenery, liberal sentencing and a more relaxed attitude to foreigners working here. But that is to underestimate the complexity that faces the party.

    The first thing on any serious politician’s agenda needs to be the economy, and there, fortunately, there is general agreement – the deficit needs to be brought under control, and supply side reforms of the sort advocated by the CPS need to be enacted. Debt is no free lunch, as Ryan Bourne reminds us, and the economy will not be competitive unless and until hard work is rewarded. These are the two pillars of current government policy; they are essential in their own right, but the government’s credibility also depends on their being pursued even in the face of temporarily adverse economic figures or opinion polls.

    Assuming agreement on those, the Conservative chunk of the government needs to decide how to carry itself with respect to the various interest groups which may offer conditional support. And there it gets complicated, because there are at least four groups, not linearly arrayed, with which they will have to deal if they are to regain their status as the national party.

    First of all, as various folk from Robert Halfon to Boris Johnson to Tim Montgomerie have argued, the Tories need to connect with those in the aspirational and/or squeezed middle, suffering from higher fuel prices, job insecurity and debt, and cross about the EU. This is the group receiving most attention, notably in David Cameron’s speech at the conference, and in this week’s trailed speech about law and order.

    But the Tories also have been looking for a breakthrough North of the River Trent. And here – I speak with some local knowledge as a resident of a Yorkshire city – white van conservatism, to mix my metaphors, will not fly. Social solidarity is the keystone of political consensus in the North, and individualistic Conservative rhetoric does not go down well at all. Trust of the Conservatives is unbelievably low – they are an irrelevance in the cities – and voters are extremely suspicious that support for aspiration morphs too easily into there’s-no-such-thing-as-society. Mrs Thatcher’s famous quote was certainly taken out of context, but justly or otherwise it has not been forgiven because it spoke directly against traditional ideas of cooperation and mutuality. Add to that the sad fact that any growth in jobs over the last several years in Northern cities has been as a result of employment by or for the state, and one can see why white van conservatism looks very unappealing up here.

    Thirdly, what about those bien pensants mentioned above? Ridiculed by most Tories, ignored or exploited by the traditional left, and often ludicrously impractical, nevertheless there is a core of people worried about the environment, who detest materialism, who welcome immigration, and who wish to preserve aid spending. It is often said, with truth, that such people are corralled in the media and in the universities – which means that they may be small in number, but extremely influential. Once more I speak with local knowledge as an employee of a Russell Group University; you could throw stones all day on a typical campus before hitting someone who might even consider voting Tory.

    It is worth noting in passing that social solidarity, protection of or concern for the environment, worries about materialism and a positive view of immigration are all ideas or points of view that have been espoused by people on the right of politics in living memory. Try reading Angus Maude’s brilliant The Common Problem from 1969 (which I have recently discovered), or various books from Roger Scruton.

    And finally, there are the Tories’ coalition partners. The Lib Dems may well be unappealing, but they have the clout of the balance of power, and the Conservatives have neither used them well, nor fully accepted the consequences of failure to win a majority. It may well be, as many Conservatives hope and believe, that more committed policies of the right would win a majority, and that Cameron made a tactical error with his rebranding exercise. But it cannot be concluded from that that the 2010 election result legitimated committed policies; they will have to be put to the electorate in 2015 or whenever. The failure to manage relations with the Lib Dems, to the extent that they put the kibosh on the essential redrawing of constituency boundaries, was extraordinary. Granted, given the dearth of talent in the Lib Dems, they were likely to make a pig’s ear of Lords reform proposals, but that only says that Tories should have seen that coming and engaged with them more.

    The result is the Tories have fallen out with their only possible coalition partners, and have made no progress in the North or with the progressives. Their only chance of winning the next election will be Scottish independence before 2015. Cameron’s rebranding exercise in any case was aimed at the progressives only, and has been completely unnoticed round our (Northern) way, but the Tories have not learned that the prejudice they are trying to undo has roots that go back decades. They cannot be removed by a short campaign under a single leader, and whenever a push for Conservative change is reversed in the face of poor polls, risk aversion or nervousness about the ‘core vote’, the party slides down the snake back to square one. The only way to show you have changed is slow and steady; trust builds slowly and can be dissipated with a single utterance.

    Meanwhile, as the white van heads South, other Tory clothes are being stolen. The Lib Dems, however incoherent their policy platform, have remained firm about the deficit, and so at least have that to their credit. Meanwhile, the Tory focus on the white van has allowed Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas to enlist Edmund Burke, whose defence of institutions and traditions resonates much more effectively in the Northern cities than Hayek ever will. I have no doubt that a policy platform could be assembled that would once more begin the process of winning over voters from beyond the South East, but I very much fear that the Tories lack the long-term vision with which Margaret Thatcher built the last election-winning coalition.

    Dr. Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. His latest book, 'Conservatism', was published in May 2011 by Reaktion Books. 

    Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and has a DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford. His research interests are:
    the politics and philosophy of technology, particularly the World Wide Web; transparency and open data; privacy; memory; and conservative philosophy.

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