The Tory modernisers’ moment

The Conservatives have a once in a generation chance to take advantage of Labour’s descent into irrelevance, argues David Skelton.

Think back, if you will, to the early summer of 2001. Tony Blair was in his pomp after winning a second thumping landslide win. The modernisers in the Labour Party could rest content that they had successfully transformed the party from the divided rump of the 1980s to one that had shattered the political self-confidence of the Tory Party. Political hegemony seemed guaranteed for New Labour.

How times change.

The moral of this story is that political dominance does not last forever. What seems like hegemony can disappear as quickly as it appeared: relying on the weakness of your opponents cannot and should not be enough for any political party. Attention must instead be focused on maintaining a positive offer that is compelling to the whole country, not just your heartlands.

Blairite modernisation fell apart because the Blairites failed to entrench it in the party, eventually becoming close to a museum piece. This is a particularly important lesson for Conservative modernisers. Modernisation is about always remaining relevant in changing times and changing circumstances to as broad a pool of voters as possible, whilst being faithful to core values.

No time for complacency

Conservatives cannot use the occasion of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to become complacent or to fall back into old-style, introspective policies that matter more to the party than they mean to the public at large. Nor should they see Jeremy Corbyn’s election as part of a public thirst for a more ideological style of politics – such a thirst clearly doesn’t exist. Instead, Conservatives need to use the election of Corbyn to ensure that they not only remain the dominant party, but also start to break down the walls of Labour’s heartlands and to build on the majority they won in May.

‘Modernisation’, as it was originally termed, is not about vogueishness or following fashions and trends. Instead, it is about, and always should be about, broadening your appeal as widely as possible and showing that you understand and wish to govern the country as it is, not as you wish, or imagine it to be. Just as Farageites are stuck in the 1950s, Corbynites are stuck in the 1970s and Blairites are stuck in the mid-1990s, so Conservatives need to be forever based in the here and now.

At its best, the Conservative Party has always modernised to remain relevant, has been about spreading opportunity, not perpetuating privilege, and has been forward-looking, not reactionary. It is this ability to evolve, whilst remaining true to underlying values that enabled the Conservative Party to remain dominant after industrialisation, universal suffrage, the rise of organised labour and two world wars.

It enabled Disraeli to take a ‘leap in the dark’ and become the party of widening suffrage, intervention and social reform, enabled Macmillan to make the Tories the party of house building and a mixed economy, and enabled Thatcher to spread the benefits of home ownership and share ownership. And it was a Conservative Party that was responsible for an increased minimum wage, equal marriage and the Northern Powerhouse that achieved the Party’s best election result for over two decades, showing that ‘modernisation’ can deliver electoral benefits.

Broadening the Conservative appeal

The task facing Conservatives now is straightforward and vital. They should take advantage of the opportunity offered by Labour making a dash to the lunatic fringe and make an effort to decisively broaden the Conservative electoral coalition. When we launched Renewal in 2013, we made clear that the Conservative goal must be to be seen as the genuine workers’ party, given that Labour have become fundamentally detached from the patriotic working class voters who once represented Labour’s backbone. After Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the gap between these voters and the Labour Party has become a chasm. Conservatives should seize the opportunity whilst it exists.

The Prime Minister’s declaration that this government will serve ‘one nation’ should be used as a defining, compassionate test for government policies. Its legacy should be a spreading of opportunity, shared prosperity and the regeneration and renewal of some parts of the country that have been struggling for decades.

It’s crucial that the government defines its mission as one of creating a country of opportunity, where everybody, regardless of background is given a fair shot. And this should reach into every aspect of government policy. Labour’s abandonment of education reform should be portrayed for what it is: an abandonment of children and young people in some of the poorest areas. This should be contrasted with the Conservative approach, which is to emphasise time and time again that the best schools and the best teachers should be based in the poorest areas.

And Conservatives shouldn’t be afraid to link this to the public debate about inequality, which they too often concede to the left. They should argue clearly that education, job creation and wage growth are all crucial to tackling underlying problems of inequality and poverty and that the left has nothing to say on these issues. Conservatives should remain focussed on tackling the root causes of poverty and be comfortable describing this as a moral mission. At the same time, Conservatives shouldn’t shy away from criticising corporate excess, such as when executive pay bears little or no link to performance, or corporate bad practice, such as restaurant attempts to ‘skim’ parts of the wages of low-paid waiting staff.

In terms of sharing prosperity: the announcement of a National Living Wage was a decisive step to making this happen, emphasising that the benefits of economic growth should reach everybody in society. Similarly, housing has always been a fundamental part of the Conservative message when it has been at its most powerful and broadest. The goal should be ensuring that some of the lowest paid people are able to move into home ownership, meaning that government should focus on boosting housing supply.

This might well mean some government action to ensure that sufficient affordable housing is built, rather than just relying on the market. After all, 66 per cent of private renters pay so much in rent they have nothing to save towards a deposit at the end of the month. Conservatives should be proud of the opportunities offered by Help to Buy and the extension of Right to Buy to housing association tenants, but they should also go further in building more genuinely affordable, low-rent homes. This could mean loosening borrowing caps on councils, tightening up affordable housing obligations on big developers or other measures to incentivise building of affordable homes.

Economic and political renewal

Transforming the economy of the country beyond the South East should be a fundamental mission for the government over the next five years. The Northern Powerhouse project represents the most substantive attempt to narrow the North-South divide since the war, with real progress, inspiring civic leadership and genuine cross-party cooperation in cities like Manchester and its neighbouring councils. The next stage of the Powerhouse project must be to turn around those towns and villages that have been suffering economically and socially since the deindustrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s.

The Conservatives must become the party that dramatically looks to transform the fortunes of the old coalfields, docks, steel and mill towns which have too often suffered from high levels of unemployment and worklessness, decaying housing, and poor health and educational outcomes. Equally, many parts of the country that suffered from deindustrialisation have had the effects further compounded by a ‘brain drain’, producing a negative cycle in which talented young people leave the area, accentuating already difficult economic circumstances.

Conservatives should prioritise the economic renewal of areas that have felt abandoned by politicians of all parties for too long. This will involve providing incentives to create a dynamic private-sector led economy, as well as taking steps to improve local transport infrastructure. Renewing the economy outside the South East, along with transforming the quality of urban life, would be a powerful legacy that would reap both economic and political rewards: fundamentally altering the negative perception of the Conservative party that has lingered in some areas for decades. The last election in Scotland showed how weak Labour’s grip can be: Conservatives can capitalise on Labour’s disengagement and complacency.

Seats like Stockton South and Harlow showed that a ‘blue collar’ Conservative message can be effective in seats that were once safely in the Labour column. Indeed, Labour performed badly below expectations with those patriotic working class voters who think that the Party no longer shares these values or understands these concerns. Whilst it’s ambitious for Conservatives to take swathes of the Labour heartland immediately, it’s realistic to make gradual incursions. Seats like Darlington, Bishop Auckland or North East Derbyshire look ripe for Conservatives – allowing them to build a platform on which to move deeper into Labour’s heartlands.

Entrenching modernisation

Finally, Tory modernisers should look to learn from the mistakes of Labour’s modernisers and aim to fundamentally entrench modernisation throughout the party, extending beyond policy and into party structures. They should do more to make the Conservative parliamentary party representative in terms of class, considering bursaries to help Conservatives from low income backgrounds stand for parliament and become MPs.

Equally, they should lead a major push to renew the party’s organisational structure in Labour seats, making sure that efforts are made for the entire five years of the Parliament to reach out to those working class voters who feel abandoned by Labour. They should also take the opportunity, when leaders of trade unions talk openly about a ‘Blairite virus’, to appeal to trade union members over the heads of their out-of-touch leaders, looking to revive the ‘Conservative Trade Unionists’ organisation that was so effective at winning working class voters, disenchanted by the hard-left takeover of the unions and the Labour Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A fundamental realignment

Now is a once in a generation opportunity for a fundamental realignment of British politics, with the conditions in place for Labour’s one time dominance of their heartlands to wither away. The Conservatives should become the home of those moderate, patriotic voters who feel abandoned by Labour under Corbyn and have little in common with the Liberal Democrats. To do this, they should continue making every effort to show they are relevant and in tune with the hopes and aspirations of every part of the country. Some might call it modernisation, others simply as broadening the party’s appeal, but this effort should be unceasing and relentless if Conservatives are to reach out to build successfully on both May’s result and Labour’s descent into irrelevance.