Putting Humpty back together

By admin, October 19, 2017

Although many hoped for it, and many feared it, few expected it. When the Brexit earthquake struck, it upended assumptions that politicians, business leaders and economic forecasters had relied on for decades. Even as we have tried to disentangle the causes of this popular revolt, the waves have rippled through the bedrock of British politics. In June 2017, they produced a major aftershock in the snap general election.

Support for the different political parties seesawed in a wholly unpredicted way. The outcome was full of paradoxes. The Conservative Party increased its share of the popular vote by over 5% to over 42%, but we lost our majority in the House of Commons. Theresa May owes her precarious grip on power to the remarkable success of the once nearly defunct Scottish Conservatives – and to the political wizardry of their leader, Ruth Davidson. Labour, led by its most left-wing leader ever, and campaigning on its most socialist manifesto since 1983, increased its share of the popular vote to over 40% for the first time since Tony Blair in 2001. An election that was expected to herald the decline of the two-party system and the rise of third parties delivered instead the near obliteration of UKIP and a decline in support for the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens. This was an extraordinary election with an extraordinary result.

Ever since I was first elected onto Westminster Council 20 years ago, I have known that it is from the liberal centre right that Britain is best governed – and, more often than not, wants to be governed. As we used to say at the think tank I set up in the early 2000s, it’s all about “achieving progressive goals through conservative means”. Constantly frustrated by my party’s tendency to lose its appetite for reform and slide back into a reactionary defense of the status quo, I have toyed with lots of different ways of giving it a more permanent anchor in the reforming centre ground. In 2010, shortly after David Cameron formed the country’s first post-war coalition government with Liberal Democrats, I argued for a formal electoral pact – with the short-term goal of ensuring a continuing majority for a coalition government on the liberal centre right. But with the hope that the Liberal Democrats would eventually split and that many of the free market reformers in their ranks would join the Conservative Party and, in turn, help make our party more liberal.

Then in 2013, despairing at our lame attempts to appeal to voters in their 20s and 30s, I floated the idea of reviving the National Liberals, which had once been an entirely separate party but had ended up forming a permanent alliance with the Conservatives while retaining a separate name, and some distinct ideas and traditions. In its modern reincarnation, I envisioned it operating as a niche brand in the Conservative family, a bit like the Cooperative Party in the Labour movement. Candidates would be allowed to run as National Liberal and Conservative, but would need to be approved by the board of the National Liberal Party and sign up to a set of liberal principles. In this way, candidates in urban areas and university towns might be able to agitate for progressive reform within the broader Conservative Party.

Since then we have had two general elections and a referendum. They have turned things upside down. In the 2015 election, the choice between a Conservative leadership team with strong approval ratings and a solid economic record, and a weak Labour leader who seemed all too likely to be pushed around by the formidable leader of the Scottish Nationalists, was perfectly designed to produce a squeeze on the Liberal Democrats, already unpopular after 5 years in coalition government. So David Cameron increased the Conservative share of the vote to 37% and won the Party its first parliamentary majority since 1992. I was in awe of what he and George Osborne had achieved. Perhaps my earlier fears had been unfounded, and they had already succeeded in entrenching the Conservative Party’s position on the liberal centre right. Perhaps they didn’t need any of my clever wheezes to consolidate our position as a party with a commitment to progressive reform and a truly national appeal. For the next year, I put my head down. I focused on shaping two progressive reforms of my own: the apprenticeship levy and the Sainsbury review of technical education.

Then everything got blown apart by the referendum. Blown apart in the sense that David Cameron and George Osborne, the architects of the Conservative election victory and the leaders who had positioned the party in the reforming centre ground, were immediate casualties. But blown apart also in the sense that the broad Conservative coalition that they had created was riven in two by passionate disagreement over Brexit. The younger, university-educated, urban voters who had been attracted by the Cameron government’s modern tone and moderate policies were now depressed by the prospect of Brexit, and furious with the Conservative politicians who had brought it upon them. If it was hard to persuade them that the Conservative Party offered them a contemporary prospectus before the referendum, once Theresa May moved inexorably to implement the people’s verdict and promised to take Britain out of the single market, what was hard became impossible.

We now see the result. As a party, we have won over a large number of new voters – mostly working class, older and strongly pro-Brexit. We have secured victory in places like Mansfield where Ben Bradley was the first Conservative to be elected since the constituency was created in 1885. That is a great prize. If we want to be a national party governing with the support of at least 40% of the vote, we need these voters, indeed we should celebrate them. But we have paid a painful price. We lost diverse, urban seats it took us well over a decade to win, and make our own: Battersea, Bristol North West, Brighton Kemptown, Bath, Bedford, Stroud, Ipswich. We have driven the aspirational, educated voters, who only started listening to us after David Cameron was elected leader in 2005, into the arms of Jeremy Corbyn. It’s bad enough that Labour won the support of 70% of 18-24 year olds (although it is great news that this generation has begun to see the point of voting.) It is much worse that a socialist prospectus also won the support of 52% of voters aged 25-49. The age at which a voter is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour has shot up from 34 to 47 [https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/06/13/how-britain-voted-2017-general-election/]. The Conservative Party risks the fate of the Church of England: a slow slide towards extinction.

My twenty-year dream of a modern liberal Conservative Party, winning elections by delivering progressive reform, looks broken-backed. But I am optimistic that Humpty can be put back together again.

The next election will not be defined by Brexit, as the 2017 election was. In June, the British Electoral Survey found that far more voters picked Brexit as “the single most important issue facing the country” than any other issue. And they placed their election cross accordingly: the survey tracked the voting behaviour of the same 30,000 voters as in 2015 and found that for many their position on Brexit overrode their usual party allegiances. They switched their vote. The Conservatives won large numbers of new votes from people who voted Leave. And Labour won even larger numbers of new votes from people who voted Remain.

In 2019 the UK will leave the European Union – and probably enter a two-year transition in which most things stay the same. The most likely date of the next general election is June 2022, a year after that transition has ended. Unless there is an economic cataclysm, and the point of the transition is to avoid it, Brexit is very unlikely to be “the single most important issue facing the country” for most voters when they next head to the polls. As Winston Churchill discovered in 1944, and John Major rediscovered in 1997, at general elections voters focus on the future. They don’t stop to say thank you or even damn you. They move on. So we will have an opportunity to win back the support of younger professional voters in cities and university towns. We must start now to reassure them that we really do share their values. We must offer them modernity and change, not a tired old defence of the status quo.

When I listen to the Conservative MPs first elected in 2015 and 2017, I hear women and men of all ages and backgrounds, who look and sound like modern Britain, who combine a passionate commitment to universal ideals with a practical focus on getting stuff done and making things work. They want to change things in this country to make it fairer, stronger, greener and more dynamic. When they confront important choices about our party’s future direction, I am confident that they will want to see the Conservative Party banging the drum for liberal values and progressive reform – as it has often done when it was most successful.

Over the next few months I will be publishing a series of essays, setting out the policies and priorities that would take Britain in the right direction after Brexit. My agenda is explicit. I want the Conservative Party to stand up for liberal values, and to draw on its deep wellspring of common sense that tells it that a successful Britain has to be a modern one. I hope that people will engage with my ideas, respond to my suggestions and improve them. Not just Conservative MPs, councillors, members and supporters but anyone who believes in the power of ideas to change things. At the end of the process I will publish a book bringing together the chapters that have survived the public mauling. On the way, I hope that I will have contributed something that helps the Conservative Party renew its confidence, and work out what it needs to do to govern well and win again.


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16 Comments

  1. Hugh Staunton says:

    [So pleased that you are back to sparkling form after your illness.]

    [My background:
    • I am aged 71, and was for a very short time only – until I became wholly disillusioned with the average age of the rest of the committee (older than me) – a member of the (what was it called?) Executive Committee, and as such voted to select you for the last but one election.
    • I have three children, all around the age of 40, and several grandchildren.
    • I have always voted Conservative at national elections (I didn’t think much of our local councillor one year and defected to the Lib Dems) and have always believed in self-sufficiency, being a self-employed sole practitioner solicitor for most of my professional life.
    • I am ‘married’ to a staunch Brexiteer, who is becoming increasingly right-wing and intolerant as our government, not just this one but the last one also, shilly-shallies about without actually getting anything achieved. She worries about our British culture and the way it is being eroded.
    • We live in a small village, Gunby, which has 22 houses. We have been trying to sell our – much too large for us – house for over two years and see only diminishing sale prices.]

    Encourage downsizing
    As I said at one of your fish and chip suppers, what we really need is to get the population who want to move moving again. We live in a house which is far too big for us, but – even if we could sell it – there are very few pleasant properties into which we can satisfactorily downsize. As and when we do sell it, and on the assumption that there will still be some surplus equity available, it is my plan that we give part of the ‘super profit’ as a deposit to my son who lives in London. Otherwise he will never have a house: at present he is wasting around £1,500 per month simply in rent.

    Encourage new home ownership
    The complexity of the planning laws is ridiculous. It must’ve been 10 years ago now that Princess Anne opined that what was really needed was that every village should add two or three extra houses. Gunby, for example, has space for at least three more, but because there is no school, no shop and no pub, it is not “sustainable”, and everyone gets shoved into the towns.

    You will have the statistics: I do not, but I guess that England has well over 50,000 villages; it may be as many as 500,000 multiplied by three equals…. “You do the maths!”

    Encourage skills
    Building land is of course not construction, and we are in desperate need of people who are trained tradespeople: bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, etc., etc. We cannot rely upon Poland to supply them all!

    Encourage kit houses: pre-fabs.
    It is not difficult for houses, nowadays, to be factory built and erected on site in a very short period. The Times (newspaper) had a competition a couple of years ago which produced some super designs. There could be a choice of (say) 10, and they could be constructed to various approved standards. If the population can cope with Ikea and Lego, they can certainly do house building!

    My summary to you is therefore as follows:
    • do something revolutionary!
    • persuade people to release more land for building: small plots, and if necessary specify a maximum sale price to deter speculators
    • give our young people hope that they may have something of their own, and encourage first-time buyers by removing SDLT for them.
    • encourage pre-fabs kit houses
    • encourage downsizing by reducing SDLT: perhaps time-limit it to a period of three years
    • persuade private independent schools, perhaps by a threat upon their charitable status, to sponsor technology departments where less academic pupils may learn construction and other technological skills.

    I wish you all the best.

  2. john czarnota says:

    I would agree that the Conservative party needs to renergise its vision and philosophy as the last election seemed to be a very negative campaign focusing on how terrible Corbyn would be. Whilst agreeing wholeheartedly with this it is hardly an inspirational message to connect with people in their 20s and 30s and even 40s who have no experience of life under a truly socialist government. I would prefer not to go down the “told you so” route to prove how much of a disaster that would be for the UK.
    Unfortunately Brexit / EU membership is such a polarising issue within the Conservative party I do not share your optimism that we will get to 2022 and I cannot see any unity formula that is likely to prevail once the real decisions about Brexit’s final shape have to be taken. Perhaps the existing two larger parties need to fragment in to 3 or 4 smaller ones that do not have such extreme tensions at their cores and then work to form coalition governments in the future

  3. Phil H says:

    The following may need better evidential support:

    Ever since I was first elected onto Westminster Council 20 years ago, I have known that it is from the liberal centre right that Britain is best governed

    Isn’t Westminster Council renowned for the homes for votes and the cemetery scandals?

  4. Phil H says:

    As you are my MP these are the issues IMV:

    1. System of Government: a) PR not FPTP b) Elected Second Chamber c) Elected Head of State.

    2. Economy: Regulated Free Market Economy – best model?

    3. Housing: Linked to productivity – UK invests far too much in an unproductive asset. Land Value Tax and CGT on gains will dampen down investment demand and house building programme will increase supply.

    4. Education: Funding. Find fairer way of funding university as well educated populace is a public as well as private good.

    5. Taxation: level the playing field by ensuring larger Companies pay more tax rather than repatriating income out of UK. Tax assets more and reduce tax on income.

    6. Welfare: Basic Income?

  5. […] We will be linking to each chapter as it is published, and here is a link to its introduction. […]

  6. Nigel Ford says:

    “I want the Conservative Party to stand up for liberal values”

    It seems the Blairites have taken over the party as his legacy lives on.

    Whoopee.

  7. Val Harvey says:

    Why are we still using the FPTP system in this country? It leaves many voters disenfranchised. In some South East constituencies would-be labour voters don’t stand a chance and similarly in safe labour seats conservatives are wasting their votes.

    Whilst we are re-ordering constituency boundaries, why don’t we adopt a fairer voting system (not AV!) which more closely reflects the wishes of the electorate.

  8. Will says:

    Things are much worse than you think.
    Unless Brexit is an undisputed success it will be the major dividing line in UK politics in the next election, and many subsequent elections.
    Worse the division between the “somewhere s,” and “anywhere’s ” has become entrenched with the younger, urban, graduate, and ,( crucially) working and tax paying part of the population questioning why they should pay to support the socially conservative, economically stagnant parts of the nation.which perversely votes for damaging and restrictive policies.

  9. Drew Dawson says:

    So in essence the author is saying that the past 40 years worth of economic and social policies have been s**t….

    …Blue or Red….it doesn’t matter who runs the country….unless you’re towards the top o’ the pile you’re gonna get s**t on.

  10. Gary Rudd says:

    This is turgid and delusional fluff. One might have thought that having been so existentially threatened you might have produced something original and even inspirational, but it is self-serving and frankly dull.
    Small wonder your party is so mired in foolish stasis and led by a propped up corpse.
    If this were to be your epitaph then who will remember you with affection. Like your moribund government and imploding party you need to do much better or you will be remembered for dismembering the Union, the nation and the Conservative Party. Not the kind of achievement you should record and, like your title, a paradoxical claim.

    It does however have an unintended comedic property.

  11. David Bellamy says:

    I think that political allegiance goes in cycles and at present the majority appear to have had enough of liberal values after Cameron and in particular Blaire. I find people like Vince Cable particularly annoying who haven’t realised that things have moved on but will probably come full cycle long after he’s gone.

    I’m not a great political theorist and won’t try to pretend I am, hence why I’ve been a members of several political parties and changed allegiance. What usually happens when you get parties in power for long periods they go off script or take their philosophy to far and become unpopular like Blaire and Thatcher.

    Things I am aware of is the lack of social mobility within the UK which mass immigration has caused along with wage undercutting. Companies stopped training or apprenticeships years ago and started recruiting from the bottomless pit abroad the NHS being a glaring example. Then the only option for the indigenous population is university which appears to be a waste of time and money for many.

    Another thing I’m aware of is, so called globalisation being the greatest destroyer of the environment in history although its portrayed as the answer to all our problems even the environmental ones. Chopping down rainforest to grow palm oil for biofuel being a good example. Another good example already mentioned above is tax evasion by large corporations allowed to move capital from one place to another or turn prophets to losses by claiming deficit on loans taken out. I can’t get my head around even the Green Party being proponents of globalisation??

    You hear a lot about the liberal elite today looking down on the working classes with contempt, Hillary Clinton being a clasic example, and I do believe thats the case. I think its strange now that the Conservative party seams more in tune with working class people than Labour or the Liberals. Having said that some of the policies have been crass on industrial tribunals and people having to pay their own costs when found not guilty in courts, who can ill afford to do so !!

    I’m not very good on policy development I’m afraid, but what really motivates me is injustice when I see it, which normally means complaining.

    Good to see you back.

  12. B Smith says:

    Born before WW2 and now looking back over 80 years of history and my life experience, I am amazed that I have always been a Conservative. My father was a professional Farmworker and it was not until I reached Grammar School that I realised we were poor by average standards. I recall my parents and grandparents were avid supporters of Churchill, Christians and the Conservatives and whilst seldom angry, never had a good word to say about coal miners and dockers. They were content with life.
    Sad to say, in my immediate family I am the only remaining Conservative (but dithering) and have two highly educated and very successful children who were so called Liberals and now one is a strong Democrat and the other a Corbynite. My wife has had a rule in place for some years which is we never discuss politics within the family as it is too toxic and it really is!
    I’m a dated expert in automotive distribution, cars, vans, trucks, heavy trucks and buses and franchising, home and overseas. So you will forgive me if revert to type and tell you that the famous Perkins Engine brand which originated in the 30’s in Peterborough had a logo which was formed from a central rhombus like shape with a circle centred in the middle of each of the four sides. Perkins boasted the logo was a sign of a square deal as far as truck operators were concerned. In those days buying British meant buying inbuilt unreliability and truck operators often argued, “that it was all balls”.
    Turning to your introduction I thought it was gobbledygook. I believe politicians are very lucky indeed to be in a job. In respect of the Conservative Party, I think the brand is toxic and agree, just like the Christian religion, well past it’s sell by date. Industry taught me that British workers and selective senior foreign management is a world beating combination second to none. And I would point to Japanese Management who practice a ‘bottom up rather than top down’ culture of cooperation as world class. The best example being Toyota.

    So, based on data available by reference to postal codes, you need to redefine your brand and a new Marketing Plan to service the forward UK market.
    A writer gave me some good advise years ago when I was struggling to write a press release. He told me to start writing and when I had finished, return to the introduction and rewrite it. This saved me many hours.
    Good luck Nick.

  13. Lindsey Jeffries says:

    “Even as we have tried to disentangle the causes of this popular revolt, the waves have rippled through the bedrock of British politics. In June 2017, they produced a major aftershock in the snap general election.”

    This qoute from your opening paragraph says it all really. You guys in the Westminster bubble just don’t get it, you are so self absorbed & dazzled by percentages you have losdt touch with the realities of life in the UK. There is a groundswell of discontent across the world hence Donald Trump, Catalonia & Australian political problems, as examples. It’s not all about you

    As for the fixation with percentages well did you realise that over 8% of the disciples betrayed Christ. Sounds like a lot but it was just i man

    I have been on this planet for 75 years & one of the main things that I have learned is that “those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it”

    Take note Mr. Boles, I wish you well

  14. David says:

    Nick
    I hope the actual chapters get down to brass tacks and are not all about navel gazing, the government of this country needs to change radically and if that means stepping far to the right for a while, so be it. Both houses need to be reformed, the Commons should require a qualification of at least 20 years in gainful employment outside of the publicly funded sector prior to standing as a candidate. We need politicians with life experiences not political degrees, law degrees or from old boy networks. Clueless as to real life would probably accurately describe a majority of sitters in both houses, time for a clear out!

    Having carped on about lack of life experiences the EU Referendum result should have been no surprise. A person with far more nous than most now pretending to govern us once said of the English character’In very early times it showed a tendency to withdraw cautiously from the general system in Europe, and go it’s own way. It had a notion that England’s interest were not the same as those of the continent, and were not governed by any general system that there prevailed’ Bishop of Peterborough 1896. As one other reader commented, learn from history or ?

  15. Alan Bowling says:

    Brexit for me just happens to be something that people could attach themselves to – it’s about timing. At this time we had no strong leaders, apologies to all involved but no one of the level of Blair and Thatcher. The general populous didn’t have any single person to focus on in terms of hope, and instead hung on to a non-entity Brexit, rather than a person. In addition now and at this time the perceived and often real gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” has climbed to new levels.

    Which takes me on to hope – where is the hope for the general populous? Corbyn has played on hope which is why he has done much better. Hope doesn’t equate with Conservative, which is why the older people are voting Conservative as they want certainty and predictability. A genuine hope that fairness and some type of equality will be available to the masses. That’s also why the young are more discerning in this area – their “hope” is the lowest it has been for a long time, which why they play to the Corbyn camp.

    At this time of digital revolution we need real life experienced people (some used to call them experts but I veer away from that given current “noise”) to help guide the nation through what is really the most difficult and fast changing world we have ever known. Happy to discuss….

  16. Andrew Ferguson says:

    Nick,
    I absolutely applaud your efforts here to open a debate and share some of your thinking, it’s a brave and honest approach, well done.
    Having read some of the responses I am not altogether sure you received a worthy response!
    You won’t be surprised to know that I disagree with you entirely on the direction you would see the Conservative Party take, our experiment in liberal modernisation lost us many of our core voters, as The PM fell over himself to appeal to the urban, eduction younger vote our core members deserted in droves. You say we have won new working class, Brexit voters, well that’s great news. But the urban, educated younger votes are going to Corbyn (as B Smith also points out). This is surely an oxymoron, how on earth would an educated person be attracted to Corbyn, or perhaps wisdom and education are not always linked.
    Our failure to connect with these people and others lies in our message, we need belief again in the free market and capitalism, we need conviction and a logical clear message to refute Corbyns Marxist rubbish.
    I am a little disturbed by your comments around the decline of the Church, as a matter of fact numbers this year have showed a modest increase, much of the previous decline I would also argue due in part to rather ill judged attempts at modernisation. I am aghast at the comments from B Smith who suggests Christianity has out lived it’s usefulness, what do we suggest replacing words of peace and llove with exactly, social media, retail therapy or as a minority would have it Islam…..I will pray for B Smith.
    Can people not see, the faster we erode or cultural base the faster our society diminishes, in our rush for the new we forget what makes as good, what makes us strong and that I believe is as relevant to the Conservative party as anything else in life.
    Lindsey Jeffries gets it dead right, the Westminster bubble seemed to have blinded the media as well as politicians what was blindingly obvious to the rest of us that the EU had become toxic to large numbers of people, and in the same way you are repeating the same mistake with your crusade for liberalisation, people want economic policies that are going to increase their wealth, tthey don’t want a government interfering in their everyday lives, hey want a country protected internally and externally from those that would do us harm, they are not interested in more liberal social engineering.

What do you think?

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