Conservatives must convince people it is the disadvantaged in society they care about most

Dan Watkins 11.58am

With our history as a trading nation, Britain has long favoured open markets and economic liberalism. Even in the presently difficult economic times, a majority of voters still believe that capitalism is the best way forward.

But despite the Conservative party being the country’s foremost supporters of capitalism, over the past two decades it has consistently polled in the region of 30 to 40 per cent. So the party’s Achilles heel is not its economics, but its social policy - or at least the public’s perception of it.

Rightly or wrongly, the Conservative party is perceived as the ‘party of the rich’. Lower income groups are discouraged from becoming supporters, fearing the party is not interested in them. Furthermore, many better-off voters seek to allay their social consciences by shunning the Tories. The two diverse groups represent millions of voters but can both be addressed by focusing on the disadvantaged - and if done successfully could push the party above the critical 40 per cent level of support.

In fact, it is only the Conservative party that can truly transform opportunities for the disadvantaged - the people who most rely on the public services that are in urgent need of reform. The Labour party’s strong ties to the unions and the large swathes of leftist supporters within the Liberal Democrat party, prevent either from taking the radical steps needed to improve social mobility.

The Tories are unencumbered by those vested interests and care just as much about helping all members of society as any other politician. But crucially, it is the belief in policies that fit the grain of human nature that give the Tories a genuine chance of success. The use of the ‘carrot and stick’, or positive and negative incentive, is what needs shouting about.

For instance, with welfare we have long offered benefits to people when they fall on hard times. For some recipients the ‘carrot’ works and they soon return to work. But for many others, the money is taken with no serious intent of finding further employment. They will only respond to the ‘stick’ - such as the threat of enforced community work or reduced benefits.

Consider another area - education - where again we are putting sensible incentives into play. We provide positive incentives to children from poorer families by improving their quality of education received via free schools, academies and the pupil premium. Yet those pupils who do not respond, and who cause disruption, will now face newly-liberated heads who possess a greater range of sanctions for pupils and parents. Teachers will also face positive incentives in the form of differential pay, syllabus freedoms and greater powers in the running of schools - but also the threat of dismissal if they consistently fail to perform.

This can be applied to all public sector workers. The Conservatives sorely need to improve their support among this group at a time when necessary public spending cuts threaten to offer them only the ‘stick’, not the ‘carrot’ (such as decentralisation or mutualisation). Examples such as the Civil Service Pension mutualisation should act as blueprints for other state institutions.

Of course, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove have already begun implementing such policies in welfare and education. But we need to spell out to people time and time again how these measures shall directly help families on lower incomes. Likewise for reforms to the NHS, local government and social services. The Government’s programme is not all about deficit reduction in the slightest.

The next three years offer many opportunities to focus relentlessly on the disadvantaged in British society and demonstrate to voters that it is these people the Conservative party cares the most about.

Is David Cameron jumping the Tory electoral gun on welfare reform?

David Cowan 10.16am

Occasionally, among the static noise of 24-hour news, there comes a speech that matters. Yesterday’s by David Cameron, on welfare reform, was one of them.

The Government has already made good progress towards a better welfare state with the Universal Credit, Work Programme and the £26,000 benefits cap. But we now know that the Prime Minister and Conservative ministers have only just begun.

David Cameron is hitting back against the “entitlement culture”, which has gravely undermined a sense of “collective responsibility” that used to be so strong. It is at the heart of the ‘big society’ project to rejuvenate civil society. It is also absolutely spot on. If the state constantly intervenes in our lives instead of allowing us to live as individuals and communities, taking responsibility for our own actions, then it creates a client state of automatons.

There is already a ‘welfare gap’ between those who choose not to work and those who work and save for their family’s future. This is not because everyone on benefits is workshy but because of the perverse incentives produced by an overcomplicated system which simply isn’t working.

David Cameron is entering a potentially transformative phase in his premiership. This is not the end of ‘compassionate conservatism’, rather it is a reaffirmation of it. Instead of the lazy assumption that poverty is a problem solved by income redistribution, we are offered a more nuanced understanding. Mr Cameron highlighted the real causes of poverty, such as drug addiction, family breakdown, poor education and debt. Most importantly, he articulated the most effective solution to the problem:

"Compassion isn’t measured out in benefit cheques - it’s in the chances you give people…the chance to get a job, to get on, to get that sense of achievement that only comes from doing a hard day’s work for a proper day’s pay.

That’s what our reforms are all about. Transforming lives. Helping people walk taller.”

Elsewhere in the speech, the ‘Wisconsin model’ established during President Clinton’s administration in the US offered some inspiration: it proposes a two-year time limit on benefits, and for people receiving benefits to carry out full-time community work.

Mr Cameron also spoke about how couples on benefits were having children they obviously could not afford without state support. He proposed that income support should be stopped and additional child benefit limited for families with more than three children. Tougher measures on housing were also mooted, such as lowering the housing benefit cap further and stopping it completely for under-25s.

Deeper cuts to welfare budgets should not come as a surprise. George Osborne has already announced, in last year’s Autumn Statement, two more years of cuts and, in his Budget speech this year, the need for £10 billion of further savings from welfare by 2016 (to be outlined in the next Spending Review).

Political considerations are crucial. Downing Street’s director of strategy, Andrew Cooper, is largely responsible for the policy - his polling research showing that the benefit cap was among the Government’s more popular policies. It can prove how welfare reform is a ‘wedge issue’ on which both the Lib Dems and Labour are viewed as out of touch with the ‘striving classes’. Tougher welfare reform has now become the centrepiece of Conservative differentiation.

David Cameron has crafted a long-term vision for welfare reform that extends beyond this Parliament and establishes the groundwork for the Conservative party’s general election campaign in 2015. Undoubtedly his thinking his correct and needed but it should be some cause for concern that the coalition partners are distancing themselves to such an extent three years out from that election. The coalition needs a renewed unifying mission that goes beyond deficit reduction. A new Coalition Agreement, formulated by people such as David Laws, is what is needed now, not ‘differentiation’.

Mr Cameron’s speech is precisely what the Conservatives need to help them win in 2015. But it may have come a bit too early.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

Why Owen Jones is right. The working classes are demonised… By his class

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 2.00pm

The West has many words for them. The American “limosuine liberal”, the German “salonkommunist”, the French “gauche caviar”, the Italian “Radical chic”, the Danish “kysbanesocialist”, and the Swedish “Rodvinsvanster”.

The rich English language has even more; from “Hampstead hippies” to the “chattering classes”, from “Bollinger Bolsheviks” to the “Islington massive”. Most famously of all perhaps is “Champagne Socialist” a term with its roots planted firmly in Herzen, who wrote of the poor “dying of cold and hunger… while you and I in our rooms… are chatting about socialism over pastry and champagne”.

The debate on how, why and when this happened is for another place and another time. Suffice it to say that it revolves around the “Frankfurt School’s” success in the post-war period in capturing the commanding heights, the citadels of culture and academia instead of politics and revolutions, and shaping society’s values. 

I would dispute the fact Socialism ever had a working-class core in the first place however. The French Revolution had its engine rooms in salons full of the well-to-do, not on the backstreets with sans-culottes. The Marxist Revolution was fathered by academics and industrialists, not workers. Its dogmas have only gained traction amongst the working classes when it has been in the interests of the bourgeois to persuade, bribe or coerce them from above. The ratio of roots-up working-class socialist movements compared to top-down equivalents has always been pitifully lopsided. 

Marxism’s two major constituencies are nihilists and idealists. Indeed, though you might find pessimistic and optimistic working men, nihilism and idealism are forms of distortion only the indulgence of an education can afford. And education, in spite of all efforts, remains the key definitive quality that forms the border marches of working and middle class identities. A fact poignantly illustrated by David Starkey in an intimate interview he gave for the Guardian in which he revealed that the typical working class parents’ mindset was enshrined in the phrase “you educate ‘em, you lose ‘em”. 

Parents have lost them nonetheless. Lost them to an education system that is experimenting with socialist concepts the bourgeoisie framed and are now toying with. If “lions led by donkeys” was a popular leftist motif for the behaviour of generals in the first world war, it is one that would accurately describe our education system today in which all the historically conservative foibles of the working-classes have been stamped into the dirt. Its patriotism patronised as racist, its royalism denigrated as quaint, its love of cohesive community decried as tribalistic, its liberality denounced as animalism, and its respect for authority scoffed at as infantile.

Owen Jones, a man loudly ashamed of his bourgeois background, made a name for himself last year by informing us of a process involving the “demonisation of the working classes”. A brave book by any standards for a man who belongs to the class who seem to have done precisely that. 

The solution to this sad tale lies in the conservative party embracing a One Nation Toryism best embodied by men such as Iain Duncan Smith, who, instead of aping the worst aspects of the metropolitan left which takes the underclass vote as a given for its want of proper alternatives, actually takes our compatriots’ concerns seriously. This would be both the morally right thing to do and a politically astute decision, staying on message, detoxifying the brand, whilst gaining a whole new constituency.

People desire, at the very least, shades of fidelity between thought and action, ideals and deeds. But the piquant notes tucked away in these neatly coined phrases reveal more than just frustration with inconsistency. The nugget of injustice the terms are swiping at is the fact the middle-classes, loaded with bourgeois sensibilities, are perceived to have hijacked a theory that claimed the working-classes and history had each found redemption in the other.

After Hilton, Conservative radicalism looks set to continue unbounded

Michael Burgess 10.32am

So David Cameron’s closest adviser has embarked on a year-long American sabbatical. Meanwhile, the coalition is experiencing its roughest ride since the tuition fees rise, as the Health & Social Care Bill struggles its way on to the statute book.

As a backdrop, the run of opinion polls in which the Tories have enjoyed virtual parity with the Labour party at around 40 per cent appear to be ending. Some people believe now is the perfect opportunity to rein in the Conservative radicals and show the party’s ‘modernisers’ that the programme of reform is not worth the political pain it is inflicting. Will the British public tolerate tough austerity measures and sweeping reforms of beloved public services? Can that radical approach deliver the all-important Conservative majority in 2015?

These un-enlightened souls may also ask themselves: why are the Tories using up political capital on this scale of change when, after all, they are meant to be ‘conservatives’? Surely recent events have shown that it is better to adopt a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ approach for the next three years, placating the Liberal Democrats at every turn and doing their best not to upset the vested interest groups?

Wrong.

Now more than ever, the Government has to have the focus and determination to push through this essential programme of reform.

Tony Blair was not afraid to cast himself as a reformer, but even he only scratched away at the surface, often being held back by the trade unions, the Labour party or the media. Spin truly is not substitute for substance.

The coalition, on the other hand, has driven onwards with reforms to education, policing, healthcare, public sector pensions, university finances, welfare and local government. A valiant effort as it approaches only its second anniversary.

It is a mistake, therefore, to believe that Steve Hilton’s departure signals the beginning of the end for Conservative radicalism. He leaves behind a Tory party dominated by those of a similar reforming zeal. In Cabinet, Michael Gove, Francis Maude and Iain Duncan Smith are the current poster boys, but there are plenty of others hanging on their coat tails or blazing their own paths.

As we approach the Budget on Wednesday, all eyes are on George Osborne. He is not wanting of advice, with calls for reducing the top rate of income tax, cuts to corporation tax and raising of the personal allowance.

Post-Budget, the focus will surely switch to the Queen’s Speech. Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat colleagues will want to set out a programme of constitutional reform, presenting perhaps the biggest test to the wider Conservative party’s reforming credentials. Reform of the House of Lords is a polarising topic but the Tories should embrace it, for no true moderniser should advocate a wholly unelected second chamber.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge is for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to keep to their radical course. Strong leadership and communication of policies and ideas will be vital. Now is not the time to shy away from making and defending tough decisions for the sake of short-term politics and tomorrow’s headlines. We saw where that got the last Labour government, whose chronic infighting and a constant battle for favourable press coverage consumed their energies, leaving little space for reforms to see the light of day.

As for Steve Hilton, perhaps it was the Civil Service that did for him in the end. Or maybe he just wanted what most people would want - to spend more time with his family.

Whatever his reasons, Conservative radicalism looks set to continue unbounded. Long may that be the case.

Follow Michael on Twitter @SuperMacmillan

Tories should think twice before hurling insults - the party wins when united

David Cowan 6.00am

Ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century, it has been conventional to divide the Conservative party into alternating factions. Ultras and liberals; dries and wets; eurosceptics and europhiles - there has always been something amounting to disunity in the ‘One Nation’ party. In this vein did my co-scrivener Giles Marshall describe the ‘Tory Right’ as “the poison that too often infects the Conservative party”. Furthermore, they:

…do not actually want a ‘common-sense’ policy on immigration - they want a good old-fashioned ‘bash the immigrants’ policy. The NHS reforms are supported because in reality much of the Conservative right-wing believes that the whole concept of the NHS is a little old fashioned and we should all be paying private health insurance… As for the ‘desire for spending control’, there is little spending from the public purse - probably excepting defence - that a section of right-wingers agree with at all.

I believe this description to be perhaps a bit too crude. It offers too much credence to the false caricature of the Tories as a ‘nasty party’ or too ‘right-wing’.

From 1997 to 2005, it was clear that the Conservative party had become too narrow minded, backward looking and dysfunctional. A humbling electoral reverse at the hands of New Labour proved consumptive rather than cathartic.

There were avoidable blunders, such as William Hague’s ‘foreign land’ speech, thesupport for Section 28, and the relentless attention to immigration during the 2005 campaign.

The Conservative party clung on to a bygone era that they thought existed, but didn’t. For instance, the support for grammar schools was believed to be a quintessential Thatcherite policy, despite the fall in the number of grammar schools during Mrs Thatcher’s time in power.

Conservatives failed to come to terms with Thatcherism being a product of its time - not a universal doctrine.

The Conservative party had to shift focus to new battlegrounds, such as public service reform, civil liberties, and the environment. We should be grateful that this shift has occurred under David Cameron’s leadership.

However, it is absurd to claim that modernisation of the party involves a 'castration of the Right' (as Tim Montgomerie did in May). It is also absurd to claim that the ‘Tory Right’ is a band of callous xenophobes. Take Nick Boles, a prominent moderniser on the back-benches and a close friend of Mr Cameron: as well as advocating a 2015 electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats, Mr Boles has argued for a very tough immigration policy, including denial of social housing and forced removals. The Tory Reform Group’s very own Damien Green is implementing the Government’s immigration policies as a Home Office Minister.

Dividing the Conservative party, therefore, into left and right, Thatcherites and Modernisers, etc, is overly simplistic. Moreover, to ridicule certain beliefs held by many grassroots members is unhelpful.

The many subtle traditions and groupings within the Conservative party have contributed to its dynamism, innovation and nurturing of talent. One Nation Conservatism has been invaluable in the struggle for a welfare state without socialism, the preservation of ancient liberties, and standing up for peace, prosperity and liberty abroad. Equally, the ‘Tory Right’ has been crucial for liberalising our economy, protecting ancient institutions and upholding our national identity. Of course, these functions and achievements are not mutually exclusive, and when these traditions combine the Conservative party is at its most potent. When differences have sown division, as in 1846, 1903 and 1993, there has been ruin.

Pitt, Canning, Peel, Disraeli, Salisbury, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan, and Thatcher - just some of the many great individuals to have led the Conservative party. They came from very different backgrounds, travelled in different directions and led very different administrations. However, they all had one common aim, an aim best articulated by the original One Nation visionary, Benjamin Disraeli:

I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few.

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