Francis Davis 2.00 pm
Recently, in the Conservative Party, there have been a slew of speeches, pamphlets and exhortations arguing to extend the ‘modernising’ project if the party is to stay in power. Yet among the least noticed developments in Conservative circles , but the most clocked among Labour’s team, was a break from the vitriol of ‘strivers’ versus ‘shirkers’ as Greg Clark set out to advance the cause of ‘ordinary people’ . In one fell swoop the Treasury and regional Cities Minister seemed to have framed a paradigm which may lay the seeds of a response to ‘one nation’ Labour and its patriotic cast of mind.
Worklessness, Clark argued, was complex and not just a sign of sloth. More to the point plenty of families want to work hard, keep their kids safe, have a holiday and cover off their pension. To do that they will work conscientiously but still long for ‘a life’. You can get the picture: ‘ordinary’ families want to minimise economic insecurity but this does not mean they all want to give their every moment over to chasing the dreams of a ‘Dragon’s Den’, or the exhaustion of a life underpinned by breathtaking overtime. A practical family car will do them rather a Merc; a fortnight in a hotel in the Canaries rather than a month in a holiday home in France; access to good doctors for when their gran’ is ill; the support of a flexible welfare system when an Uncle is laid off by that local company where until his redundancy consultation came he thought what he did really mattered to his boss. The ‘ordinary’ do some volunteering and an increasing number are carers. Moreover, one could infer, ‘ordinary’ people think that politicians who have only worked in the City, think tanks or London, and never in the public sector or a small firm, are ‘weird’. And such voters will play a defining role in the general election’s English marginal seats.
The trouble for the current Conservative party is that it is the least prepared of the major parties to reach out to this crucial core of the largest part of the United Kingdom. Whilst ‘modernisation’ has produced many pamphlets, its narratives are still dominated by two clusters of reflection rooted in geographical cultures that unconvincingly reflect English aspirations. These are the ‘Glasgow’ modernisers with their centralising instincts, and social conservatism, and the ‘Notting Hill’ modernisers with their metropolitan and commodifying ethics. The result is that the experience of ‘the ordinary’ gets mis-translated into the less compassionate, more marketising, more moralising, more white models of the ‘modernisers to date’, who in turn think they are cleverly ready for modernisation 2.0. Consequently, the urge to institutional renewal and local community revival on the part of the English Conservative party in the country is all but exhausted.
For example, Conservative HQ’s ‘mutuals’ unit arrived then closed as quickly as a passing storm. Its outreach to black and ethnic minority families has never taken off. There is no lively network of Conservatives in the public sector, or nurses, or mums. It does not celebrate its Northern councillors as national champions outside the Local Government Association nor require those in the South to spend time out of their own areas. And the party seems to think that the odd week in Bosnia or Bangladesh for its candidates passes as civic credibility when ‘ordinary’ voters have to fit in school governorships, neighbours’ needs, and supporting children’s soccer teams around everything else.
By contrast Miliband’s Labour has been running pilots which give its canvassers a brief to have doorstep conversations rather than merely voter registration drives. In some seats it has signed up a thousand new allies by linking parents concerned about teenage drinking and supermarket pricing. It is turning its local staff into ‘community organisers’ to reach out to every walk of life and then targeting the training of committed activists to complement such new approaches. This and its engagement with ethnic minorities is measured by the moment rather than by luck. While Blair once transformed his constituency party in Sedgefield, Ed Miliband is seeking to go further by listening nationally from the bottom up.
If there is to be a revived Conservative modernisation then it needs to be equally zealous and break into English pathways of life for which ‘Glasgow’ and ‘Notting Hill’ are ill suited as guides. It will need to learn more on Honda’s shop floor in Swindon and from those defending river habitats in Cumbria than fixed assumptions from elsewhere. It will need to know the people in Birmingham Central Mosque, the Dean of Liverpool’s Cathedral, the parents of Chester rich and poor and middle managers in Newcastle better than Surrey and Oxfordshire. And for its advisors and civil servants, it will reach for the universities of Warwick and Southampton, Durham and Bristol, Nottingham and Leeds as much as London, Oxford and Cambridge. It should have the confidence to point to public innovations where mainland Europeans do better than ourselves. Above all it will need the skills to ‘hear’ that ordinary people are suspicious of all the political houses because ordinary people are focused on building up their own house in which they and their families can have enough, be safe, and enjoy the odd piece of luck. Not a castle, not a penthouse, not an excuse not to work but an ‘ordinary’ English life with all the shocks that employers, ill health, family pressures, thinking that London is like England, and bureaucrats can put in its path.
Greg Clark has found the language from which a new English Conservative modernisation might emerge. Others must now take up that baton rather than stridently restate much that may have been misunderstood and misapplied. After all, a party at ease with the ‘one nation’ label at a time of social complexity, and serious about modernising around the life of the whole country rather than itself, ought rightly to be proud of ‘the ordinary’.
Francis Davis is a Fellow at Res Publica and Visiting Fellow in Civic Innovation at Portsmouth University Business School.