The Conservative Party must connect with ordinary working people

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.

Planning reform: a victory for conservationists, but beware the calm before the storm

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Some (moderately) good news! The Government published the final version of its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) yesterday and it is a paramount improvement on earlier drafts.

What is more, the DCLG has managed to squeeze it in to even fewer pages (a mere 49 compared to 52), proving that as far as planning is concerned, size really isn’t everything.

The Telegraph is tickled pink. The newspaper’s 'Hands Off Our Land' campaign, which I have lauded on these pages before, provided a sustained and important outlet for opposition to the Government’s clumsy proposals last summer. The new NPPF, says the paper’s leader, “strikes a far healthier balance between development and the environment.”

Environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean hails the Telegraph readers who “refused to be fazed” during a seven-month “bloody battle” with a Government that “veered from amazement to anger”.

The Chancellor and Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, immediately announced: “No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.” Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, called objectors “semi-hysterical”, the planning minister Greg Clark accused them of “nihilistic selfishness”, and his junior, Bob Neill, blamed “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups”.

In the Times (£), columnist Alice Thompson declares ”the circle has been squared” by the “genial” Greg Clark, the “Clark Kent of politics” who has “achieved the impossible” by reconciling the divergent interests of big property developers and conservationists. She closes by suggesting mischievously that Mr Clark should be considered for the Department of Health, to “see if he can also achieve the impossible there”.

Meanwhile Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and perhaps the single most vocal critic of the initial proposals, unsurprisingly devotes his Guardian column to declaring victory for conservationists over the “cowboy lobbyists”.

What last summer read like a builder’s manifesto has been replaced with proper planning guidance.

The builders’ lobby customarily seizes on housing shortage to argue for freeing the countryside for construction. But there is no shortage of land - only of land builders can most profitably develop, and that is rural land.

But Sir Simon warns that, of course, “the proof will be in the eating”. There are still fears for what even these vastly improved reforms could unleash if local authorities and communities, given only twelve months to get local plans together, cannot stand up to powerful developers. Localism is only a virtue if you have strong locals.

The Daily Mail is a lone dissenter among the leader columns:

…Those who stand to gain most are get-rich-quick developers…[and] the biggest losers will be the lovers of England’s countryside…

No amount of ministerial bluster can disguise the acute threat to the countryside - a heritage as precious as our language - contained in the order that there must be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

I have written elsewhere why there is no such thing as sustainable development. And as Sir Simon Jenkins wrote last summer, “the only sustainable meadow is a meadow”.

But sustainable development will always be a woolly concept. We cannot truly determine sustainability in the present; that task is left to future generations. We make do with best guesses. Therein lies the risk. Yet such an existential risk would have existed whatever the Government had written down in its planning guidance.

As it happens, by making explicit recognition of the coalition’s updated sustainable development strategy, the wording is tighter and less open to abuse.

What other improvements are there in the final draft? I wrote for the Richmond Magazine last month that recognition of the “intrinsic character and beauty” of ordinary landscapes (i.e. the 55 per cent of the countryside not protected by National Parks and the like) would be crucial to any breakthrough.

That recognition has been restored, along with a brownfield-first policy, stronger protection for the Green Belt and playing fields, and the ‘default yes’ to development has been removed.

These are all revisions to be celebrated. Nonetheless, there are many challenges ahead. When he delivered the Budget last week, the Chancellor was very clear that whatever concessions were made in the final NPPF, development would still be easier, not harder. That remains true.

If localism is to have any worth whatsoever, then local communities need to work flat out in the coming months to be ready. The Daily Mail's negativity (or nihilism) goes too far, certainly. But this could well turn out to be the calm before the storm.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington