Egremont Writing Competition: David Cameron is like…

The Conservative Party is one of the oldest and most successful political parties in the world, yet very few know about its history beyond 1975. Even David Cameron lets his ignorance slip occasionally: He once remarked that the Tories have always supported free trade, seemingly oblivious to both the fall of Sir Robert Peel and our commitment to tariff reform in the first half of the 20th Century.

Our ignorance about our own history severely limits our ability to think. The historian Tim Bale warns that Thatcherism both dominates and constrains how the Party thinks about a wide variety of issues, conceding the rest of the ideological spectrum to Labour. When analysing Mr. Cameron’s leadership, many right-wing pundits feel the need to compare him to either Edward Heath or Margret Thatcher – despite the Party having around twenty leaders since Peel.

In an attempt to dispel this ignorance, Egremont is launching a competition. We challenge you to write an article comparing Mr. Cameron to a past Tory leader other than Heath and Thatcher. The competition opens today and closes on Friday, 20th December, and we’ll publish them as they come in. After the New Year, the winner will receive a free bottle of wine. The entries will be judged on how well-written they are, their historical accuracy, and, most importantly, their originality. You can compare Mr. Cameron to Stanley Baldwin or Harold Macmillan, but these are somewhat predictable. We want to see original comparisons – like to Arthur Balfour or the 14th Earl of Derby.

Entries should be between 800-1000 words, though we’ll make exceptions for longer articles if we think they’re just too good. You should email them to either editors@trg.org.uk or t_ne@live.com (or both).

We’re looking forward to reading them!

We need to stop worrying about membership numbers

Lisa Townsend

In a Times article last Wednesday former MP and current ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman argued that the Party’s refusal to release details of its membership figures made it look ‘ridiculous’. On this blog, Ryan Gray states his belief that ‘the most pressing issue’ for our associations ‘is the crisis in membership’, setting out the figures and lamenting that ‘membership is at an all-time low’.  I don’t share in the doom and gloom.

Ryan is absolutely right to point out that the Party has modernised and that we are not the organisation, or society, we once were.  But it also means that we have to accept some possibly painful truths about the reality of political party membership.  It’s down. We all know it’s down.   Let’s also remember the bigger picture: people aren’t joining the Labour Party, they’re certainly not joining the Lib Dems, or the WI or going to church every Sunday any more. Yes, UKIP have seen a healthy increase in numbers but is this anything more than the standard protest vote, often by those who left the Tories and feel the need to twist the knife?

There have been many theories over the last few months about the reasons for the decline in party membership, from David Cameron’s commitment to equal marriage or HS2; the decision not to go it alone as a minority party and the inevitability of tempering some of our more right-wing policies; or the belief by some that our Prime Minister isn’t actually a Conservative at all.

But should we be worried?  Is it the crisis some are calling it?  Does it mean the end for the Party and our electoral chances? No, of course not. As Ryan says in his own article, people just don’t join political parties any more, or at least not in the numbers they used to. They are far more likely to care about individual issues, whether it’s fracking or gay rights or the fight to save a local hospital. They care far less about signing up to one political party’s manifesto or view of the world – particularly younger voters – and this is why membership numbers are an outdated and simply inaccurate measure of any party, or leader’s, popularity. This is even more true when you consider Labour’s current woes over union auto-enrolment.

People are less likely to pin their political colours to the mast now.  Why should they? There is arguably less to divide the main political parties than ever before (Blair did a lot to cement that) so the choice is less stark than it once was.  Even if you’ve made your choice, there’s no need to sign up and pay your money to feel involved or to be privy to party policy. Everything from the popularity of sites like ConHome, dissemination of views over Twitter, MPs’ own websites and Facebook pages, as well as the use of open primaries, has made people feel closer to the process than ever before. Arguably too close – if you’ve been bombarded with politicians’ views on Twitter, 24 hour news channels and endless leafleting then why would you want to spend your evening in a drafty church hall listening to someone you’re unlikely to ask to join you down the pub, espousing their views on the sanctity of marriage?

For those who say we need activists – you’re right! We all know the importance of the leaflet through the door at election time (and beyond) and the necessity of canvass data. Getting out the vote is going to be crucial to winning in 2015 and for that we need foot soldiers. In my own association, a safe seat in Surrey, we have the kind of membership numbers that would make a small city seat weep. We can fill a church hall like it’s Easter Sunday. Branch quiz night? Bring it on. But activists?  There is already concern that we’re going to struggle to get round all the letterboxes in our own patch, let alone the target seat CCHQ have twinned us with. 

So it’s time to abandon the outdated notion that success lies in or is indicated by soaring membership numbers. MPs like Simon Kirby in Brighton Kemptown and James Morris in Halesowen and Rowley Regis are making excellent use of Facebook and Twitter and creating their own networks to get out the vote. It’s a challenge, for sure. Simon and James are both inspiring and creative and know how to lead a team – they’ve done it against the odds once and they’ll be hoping (as will we) that they can do it again. 

Politicians have done much in recent years to put people off and it’s up to all of us to start winning them back - it’s much easier to ask someone for an afternoon of their time than for a years’ commitment, particularly to a generation who don’t know what they’re going to be doing next week, let alone next year.  I think it’s an exciting time. We are going to have to be creative, innovate, try new things and accept that some of the old ones don’t work anymore if we are to keep our local associations alive – but isn’t that why we’re Conservatives?

Follow Lisa on Twitter.

The Party needs to come clean about membership

Ryan Gray

It is the summer recess: a time for MPs to do ‘other duties’ as parliament.uk puts it. Conservative Associations are meeting and discussing how to build up the Party in their areas in order to win upcoming elections. The most pressing issue for them, whether they are in the countryside or inner-cities, is the crisis in membership.

“If the party won’t publish the figure, it surely suggests a problem and the only problem can be falling membership,” sums it up nicely. The leadership’s refusal to release the number of members sends an uncomfortable message. Why won’t they come clean?

After the Second World War, three million Britons were paid-up members of the Conservative Party – a number which decreased but still remained over one million for much of the 1980s. But when David Cameron become leader in 2005, membership stood at 258,000.

In Milton Keynes, there are two Tory MPs possessing comfortable majorities, but the number of full members has fallen from 520 in 2010 to 264 in 2012. Some seats with three-figure majorities are believed to have membership lower than thirty!

Unsurprisingly, after years in the wilderness, the Party has changed from what it once was. The process of ‘modernisation’ that paved the way to our return to power was met with anger by many members, who subsequently left. Yet this does not explain why membership is at an all-time low. There is no single reason for membership decline.

Voters are not as tribal as previous generations. A growing number cast their ballots on single issues, as opposed to broad manifestos. Public opinion towards politics is a worrying low. All of these factors and more are contributing to a crisis in membership for all the main parties.

It is said that if you have a problem, the first step to recovery is acknowledging it. This is invaluable advice to the Party machine. Nobody is oblivious to the fact that membership is low, but the full extent of the problem cannot be realised until they are honest. Until the exact number and demographic of members is realised, discussions about solutions can’t and won’t happen.

Follow Ryan on Twitter.

If the Party wants more members, we must avoid ‘Tory takfirism’

image

Aaron Ellis

For nine months now, I have been chairman of City of Liverpool Conservative Future. I first became involved three years ago when I moved back to my hometown after university; I didn’t know anyone there anymore and the local CF branch was an opportunity to meet people. Thankfully, its members were all nice, smart, and laidback and I developed many strong friendships. When the opportunity came to give something back and help develop the branch, I took it, as I was emotionally invested in its success.

Unfortunately, a proportion of my time has been spent dealing with extremists. ‘Extremist’ is a better descriptor than, say, ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘right-wing’ because all Conservatives are, to a greater or lesser extent, Thatcherite and right-wing. Instead, these people hold an extreme point-of-view – typically a combination of hard, unfeeling libertarianism at home and chauvinism abroad – and who accuse anyone that disagrees with them of not being truly conservative. There is also only one way to show one’s commitment to the Tory Party: leafleting. If you aren’t willing to spend your evenings and weekends out leafleting, then you are pointless.

Though not exclusively Thatcherite, the ‘Iron Lady’ has a prominent place in their thinking – at least, their understanding of her does. Rather than appreciating that Lady Thatcher was a politician who (like any other) had to compromise, dissemble, and court popular opinion in order to achieve her objectives, extremists think of her solely as a ‘conviction politician’ who did none of these things. Thus one of the lessons they draw is that in order to be like Lady Thatcher, they should be intolerant of others’ views and be downright rude about them in the process.

Another lesson they draw is that being isolated from the mainstream is a prerequisite for gaining power. Lady Thatcher was an ‘outsider’, yet she won the leadership from the Establishment ‘apostate’ Ted Heath. In this way, as with their takfirism, extremists resemble militant Islamists. They also believe isolation is a prerequisite for power; after all, the Prophet went into isolation before the people of Mecca realised the error of their ways and embraced him. That Lady Thatcher spent only approximately four years on the backbenches during her decades-long parliamentary career and that Muhammad adapted his teachings to try to win over Jewish merchants in Medina is forgotten. No compromise; no dissembling; and no courting of popular opinion.

One extremist who ran for the Liverpool chairmanship described herself, without irony, as “the Iron Lady of the North” – a pitch that would obviously go down well with voters in this city. Months later, when I said she should try to win friends in the branch if she was going to run again, she dismissed the suggestion. She would not lower herself by participating in a ‘popularity contest’; it ought to be obvious that she is the best person for the job. In a democracy, elections are popularity contests.

The same intolerance is shown over leafleting. Given the membership crises affecting all the main parties, we need to be thankful that anyone is interested in us at all - particularly in the urban north such as Liverpool - and must try to persuade them to care enough to actively campaign. Those who join who think they might be Tories and think they like David Cameron, but aren’t entirely sure, do not want to be press-ganged into leafleting in obscure council boroughs they’ve never heard of, let alone will never live in.

And in Liverpool our problem is not that activists aren’t pushing enough leaflets through letterboxes, it’s that we’re hated. I work in a bar on weekends; when one of the previously friendly customers found out I was a Conservative, he started referring to me as “Tory c**t”. Our party brand is toxic in cities like Liverpool; we could fell entire rainforests and turn them into leaflets and it would not impact this basic political fact.

Yet whenever I have tried to argue that there are many ways members can contribute to the Party and none more or less Conservative than the other, my commitment has been questioned.

For many extremists, their inspirational text is The Road to Serfdom or Atlas Shrugged; for me, it was The Conservative Party from Peel to Major. In it Lord Blake, the great historian of our party, wrote that “[s]tern, unbending [ideology] has never paid dividends” to us.

Conservatism is a diverse political ideology, like any other; we all pick different strands from within it, and even some from outside it, and weave them together to form our own personal ideology. That’s how our Party has evolved and survived for so long.

If we become both intolerant and doctrinaire, then we will die.

Follow Aaron on Twitter.

The Conservative Party needs a radical European vision

image

David Cowan

The Conservatives’ European policy is settled. If David Cameron wins a majority at the next General Election, his government will hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union by 2017. Who knows what luck the Prime Minister will have with his rengotiation strategy, or how it will play out when Tories are campaigning against each other over whether or not we are better off out. Your guess is as good as mine. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats are on the back foot, and the grassroots love Mr. Cameron - well, dislike him less - for it.

But there is one thing people, especially Europhobes, have tended not to think seriously about. What if the British people vote to stay in the EU? Most Better Off Out-ers just assume that given the chance they will vote to leave. What if they don’t? We would be stuck with the status quo of ‘ever closer union’. The Europhobic right would totally collapse. UKIP would lose their raison d’etre. Britain’s membership of the EU would be ‘case closed’ for decades, much like it was after the 1975 referendum.Where would this leave the Conservative Party?

For so many years the Conservatives have been defined by a strong hostility towards the EU which has on occasion come close to borderline hysteria. Memories of Winston Churchill’s speeches in favour of a ‘United Europe’ (though his own view of Britain’s role in such an entity is still somewhat ambiguous), the Conservatives’ key role in shaping many fundamental European institutions, are now just an old, jaded memory which has failed to capture the imagination of a new generation of Conservatives.

This has left the Party very ill-prepared for the eventuality of the British people rejecting withdrawal from the EU. So far the Tory case for staying in the EU has been negative and timid in that the emphasis has been on reclaiming powers and reversing changes rather than improving and reforming institutional structures. If we want to be in a solid position should the Eurosceptic argument be defeated at the ballot box then they must have a positive vision for Britain’s future in Europe.

What would such a vision look like? The key principles at its heart must be economic and political liberty. A positive Conservative vision for EU reform has to fight for a less regulated, protectionist, subsidised, and taxed single market which can compete in the global economy and credibly champion global free trade as the best means of raising the most deprived countries in the world out of poverty. Complementing this would be a serious overhaul of EU structures based on a more decentralised and democratic model which allows competition and innovation to flourish through the people, instead of stagnation and decline as has been the case under the current centralised and bureaucratic model.

If the Conservatives can help forge a new EU which is a community of nations instead of a grandiose federal project, then it can be a more effective force for the pursuit of global peace and prosperity by demonstrating that moderate multilateral means can successfully deliver liberal ends.

It has become abundantly clear that the status quo will not do and ‘ever closer union’ towards a bureaucratic super-state does not bear thinking about. If the British people choose to reject the idea of leaving the EU then the Conservatives must be ready to face the challenge of reforming the EU towards a more liberal, decentralised, and democratic model. But this can only be done when Conservatives are ready to speak out and propose a radical European vision for the 21st century.

Follow David on Twitter.

The costs of a UKIP-lite immigration policy outweigh the short-term benefits

image

Harry Fraser

When Nigel Farage, the leader of a party that feels the need to define itself as ‘non-racist’ on its official website, thinks your immigration policy is ‘nasty and unpleasant’, then the chances are that something is wrong with it…

Last week, the Home Office launched a billboard campaign aimed at illegal immigrants, urging them to hand themselves in. The large billboards, placed on the back of vans, feature the slogan “Go home or face arrest” and are currently on a trial tour around six London boroughs with high immigrant populations. Illegal immigrants are told to text “HOME” to a number for free advice and help with travel documents. Mark Harper, the immigration minister, describes the initiative as “an alternative to being led away in handcuffs.”

David Cameron seems to be taking more and more leaves out of a right-wing popularist handbook, and is increasingly shadowing the behaviour of a party he once described as a collection of “fruitcakes” and “closet racists”. With the prospect of UKIP repeating their recent electoral success in next year’s European elections, the Prime Minister is trying to out-populist the champions of populism.

Irony died when Mr. Farage condemned this hard-line approach to immigration as nasty, but whilst his criticisms are ironic, there is truth in what he is saying. This campaign simply is nasty, divisive and pointless. Sure, it hammers home the message that the Conservatives are tough on immigration, but is it the right sort of tactic a responsible government should humour? The costs are sure to outweight the short-term electoral benefits.

Firstly, the campaign can be easily criticised as ‘nasty’ racist propaganda. Left-wing commentator Sunny Hundal drew obvious similarities between the Home Office’s ‘Go Home’ slogan and the rhetoric of the National Front and BNP. Whilst the adverts are not racist themselves, should the government be so brazen about promoting and pandering to the voices of the fringe right?

Secondly, why is a subject as delicate as immigration being handled so coldly and with such brashness? Instead of approaching it with some tactfulness, the government has made a habit recently of trying to look tough on immigration and coming across divisive. Earlier this month the Home Office controversially tweeted there will be no hiding place for illegal immigrants with the new immigration bill’ alongside a picture of a dark-skinned man being led in to the back of a van by armoured policemen. Are whistle-dog tactics such as this wise at a time when British institutions are still accused of being racist?

In response to the launch of the billboard campaign, the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London held an ‘emergency tension-monitoring’ meeting with Home Office officials and warned that the initiative had created ‘a sense of apprehension, tension and confusion’ amongst its clients. For a ‘compassionate conservative’, Cameron has acted consistently callously in regards to immigration…

As well as being nasty and divisive, the effectiveness of such a campaign is doubtful. As Bishop Patrick Lynch identifies, the demographics of undocumented migration have changed in recent years. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are people who overstay the terms of their visas, especially students. So instead of parading around pseudo-fascist slogans in ethnically diverse boroughs of London to pick up the odd dissatisfied voter, the government ought to focus on working with institutions dealing with immigrants and our own border control to solve this issue. Prominent Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Nadhim Zahawi back a one-off amnesty policy that would provide a boost to the economy coinciding with tougher border policies.

There are ways to solve the illegal immigration puzzle without resorting to the language and the tactics of the far right. Unfortunately this suggestion was rejected by the party hierarchy, who’ll have next year’s European elections in mind and irrationally fear a repeat of UKIP’s 2013 summer surge.

So whilst trying to appear strong and tough on illegal immigrants, the government in reality has come across nasty, divisive and incompetent. Over a decade ago, the current Home Secretary once bemoaned that some people thought the Conservative Party was “the nasty party.” One way of rectifying this would be to avoid decrepit political stunts such as this.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

David Cameron is coming (…for our porn)

James Willby

Our government is about to embark on one of the greatest attempts at Internet censorship we have ever seen.

The Prime Minister will announce today that all pornographic material will be henceforth unavailable to UK consumers. Customers will be asked by their ISPs whether they wish to opt-in to viewing pornographic content, and ISPs will be forced to do even more in the fight against content that, to use the Mr. Cameron’s words, “pollutes minds and causes crime.” The possession of pornography depicting rape will be made illegal, closing a current loophole in the law.

Sensible? Proportionate? No. Not even a bit. As has been pointed out by other commentators, it is already illegal to view images of children being abused and Section 63 of the Criminal Justice & Immigration Act 2008 banned the viewing of rape & other extreme pornography. So with these facts in mind, why is this being done? I would suggest the answer is threefold.

First and foremost, the Conservative leadership knows that it has a problem attracting female voters. From the fallout from the now infamous “Calm down dear” jibe to Labour’s Angela Eagles, Mr. Cameron is often portrayed as being out of touch with women and their concerns. So, what could be better than a campaign to protect children from the evils of pornography? Surely that could only endear him to the legions of mothers up and down the land.

Secondly, it is an attempt to make people feel ashamed for indulging in what has been hitherto perfectly legal content. By forcing people to request access to pornography, you make its use a taboo: a social faux pas that must be hidden and kept under lock and key. It is typical of the kind of nudge politics of which this government is so fond and reminds me a little of a quote from the late great Christopher Hitchins, who on visiting the Oxford Union remarked at how his old college bed had clearly been designed with the mindset of “we can’t stop you doing it, but we make it jolly uncomfortable if you do.”

Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, it allows the state to record and monitor the IP addresses being used to access pornography. And in the event of a child-abduction or a sexual assault, how long do you think it would take for the authorities to identify those “undesirables” - those persons with a predilection for the more extreme forms of pornography – in the vicinity?  The very notion that a person’s private sexual tastes could become a mitigating factor in a criminal investigation indicates what a slippery slope we are now on.

The truth is, there is plenty of content out there that we might find distasteful or down-right unpleasant. And of course there should be methods which ensure it is not found by younger eyes, but there already are if parents are willing to use them. From child locks to preventing games consoles from playing mature content to online filters for pornography, there are a multitude of options available. All that is required is a bit of gumption and some actual parental responsibility, not an attempt to criminalise or shame those persons whose tastes we don’t share.

So I for one will be signing up to view pornography. Not because I have any interest in it personally, but because the right to view legal material is not one to be hidden behind a cloak of shame or the electoral frailties of the Conservative Party.

Follow James on Twitter.

To restore Tory fortunes, Cameron’s modernisation of the Party needs completing, not retrenching

Harry Fraser

David Cameron should remember the principles that got him in to Number 10 in response to the growing discontent from the Right.

In 2005 shortly after becoming party leader, he declared that he would not be a ‘prisoner of an ideological past’, and in the run up to the 2010 election defined himself as a ‘one nation, relatively liberal Conservative’. To stand the best chance of achieving a Conservative majority at the next general election, Mr. Cameron must reaffirm these testimonies and broaden his appeal further rather than turn his back on modernisation.

Recently there has been a marked growth in discontent towards the Prime Minister, and most notable is the grievances from the Right rather than the Left. The rise of UKIP and their populist message has frustrated the established political parties and has prompted calls for the Conservatives to assert more ‘traditional’ conservative values and reflect this with policies of that nature. A debate regarding the Party’s future is becoming more evident, a battle between ‘Swivel Eyed Loons and The Cameroons’, if you will.

In response to the growth of electoral support for UKIP the Tories’ right-wing, anti-Cameron sentiment has currently culminated with the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’, a number of proposals from various backbench MPs that they describe as a “genuine attempt” to show what policies a future Conservative government could deliver. Most notable of the 42 bills proposed were calls for a referendum on the Same Sex Marriage bill, abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change, renaming the late August Bank Holiday Margaret Thatcher Day and reintroducing National Service. All of these policies you wouldn’t be surprised to find between the covers of a would-be UKIP manifesto.

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin identify that UKIP’s recent converts are much more likely to be low-income, financially insecure, and working class. The party is widely seen as to the right of the Conservatives – but that is not how UKIP voters view themselves. Whereas 60% of Tory voters place themselves to the right-of-centre, the figure for UKIP supporters is only 46%. Also interestingly 25% of Tories say they are in the centre, or even left-of-centre, the figure for UKIP voters is higher at 36%. (See here). This suggests it is more a protest thought process behind voting for UKIP rather than being ideologically drawn to the party.

Whilst it has enjoyed some gains recently this appears to be more of a blip than what is set to be a long-term trend. UKIP’s time in the limelight has led to just as much ridicule as acclaim and their support has already begun to dwindle.

Come 2015 the electorate will not be voting in protest as many did so in the May local elections, they will be voting for the party they believe is most competent at running the country. UKIP’s populist pick n’ mix manifesto will come under greater scrutiny between now and then, and Farage’s party have a long way to go before mounting any serious challenge of the political establishment.

That does not mean the reasons why people turned to UKIP should be ignored, however; nor should the fact that UKIP have a higher proportion of supporters from lower incomes than the other two parties. Cameron appears to be in a Catch-22 situation: He cannot afford to turn to the socially conservative right, which left his party in the wilderness for 13 years, yet he also can’t ignore the fact that increasingly he is seen as out of touch with the views of everyday people. When the public were asked, ‘Do you think that David Cameron understands people like yourself?’, the overwhelming response was a resounding ‘no’.

There is thus a belief that to restore Conservative fortunes and appeal to those that have jilted us for UKIP means reverting to more socially conservative, right-wing policies evident within the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’. The zealous ideological pursuit of social conservatism conflicts with the notion that the Party is the party of pragmatism. Cameron’s modernisation of the Party has been more beneficial than damaging; we have seen a 100% rise in support from younger people since he became leader and it would be wise not to stifle trends such as these. Instead of pandering to divisive politics of the past, Cameron should stand firm by his One Nation principles that he committed himself to pre-2010 in order to offer real benefits to working people.

“One Nation Conservatism” is the idea that the country is strongest and most stable when united and when social antagonisms are kept under control with relatively centrist, pragmatic politics. The debates of the 2015 election will be centred on the economy and facing the realities of government has meant that the pursuit of Thatcherite economics has replaced the compassionate conservatism Cameron promoted before 2010.

The electorate are not screaming en-masse for more Thatcherite economics in light of hard economic times. In 2009 when launching The Big Society, Cameron warned of the dangers regarding a “simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life.” As the economy shows signs of recovery Cameron should spend the next two years reassuring the public the Conservatives are not ‘enemies of the state’ but are the real One Nation Party that can represent all.

Our problem is not that the Conservatives aren’t ‘right-wing’ enough, it’s that people still don’t believe they care. David Skelton provides a useful conclusion. He notes how Cameron has rescued his party from the scrapheap once, but his modernisation is still a job half done. The move away from divisive social policies of the past is half of Conservative modernisation, but until the party does more to connect with ordinary working people, Cameron’s mission will remain unfinished business.

Follow Harry on Twitter.