The Tories’ Historic Problem

Giles Marshall 10.00am

The Conservative Party returned to form in the wake of the local election results. The always fragile veneer of unity, that has been cracking regularly pretty well since the last general election, took a few more seismic hits.

Back out of their holes were the right-wing backbenchers and leader writers prescribing another dose of rightism, or “authentic conservatism” to use its current parlance, as a solution to the Tories’ electoral ills. 

Most laughable of all was the elevation of Boris Johnson – the one bright spot in the Tories’ election misery – as the champion of this authenticity.  Yes indeed, the Gay Pride marcher, serial adulterer and bike fanatic is, apparently, just the man to return us to those stoical social values of old.  Get thee behind us, evil modernising Dave Cameron and make way for Boris!

Well, Boris’ election victory as the triumph of personality over politics has been well commented on elsewhere – entertainingly by Jerry Hayes on Dale and Company, and perceptively and eloquently by Matthew D’Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph – while Craig has had his say on these pages.

What is worth looking at, if only because it offers us a useful perspective, is the historic problem of Tory election performance.

Go back far enough, to the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Tory election graph always seemed to be a source of optimism. Often victorious, certainly nation-encompassing, its occasional blips almost always a precursor to a return to power. 

This remarkable trend seemed to be further enhanced after Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory, and two successive triumphs in which she thumped the opposition.  Even John Major, in 1992, carried the party through adverse polls to victory. So what has happened since and where did the malaise set in? 

The reality is that the Tory election problem has been a long time coming, and can be traced back to the very point of its triumph, under Margaret Thatcher herself. What Mrs Thatcher’s election victories disguised with their scale was the retreat of Toryism across too many regions of the UK. The gradual reduction of Tory representation in the northern cities and Celtic lands continued apace under her stewardship, leaving the party as essentially the vehicle of the prosperous south and east of England. 

Perhaps this was the necessary price to pay for the polarising policies of the 1980s, policies that some would argue were unavoidable if Britain’s decline was to be averted.

But when the party was finally kicked out in 1997 many of its members – and certainly the majority of its MPs – refused to comprehend the message being delivered by the electorate. Ordinary voters had had their fill of Thatcherism. 

The Conservative party, however, seemed to have barely got going, as it embraced the Thatcherite agenda with even more vigour, turning its light towards Europe and social issues. The reason for this misunderstanding was down to the way in which Mrs Thatcher had been removed. 

The coup of 1990 was a rough and ready response to the poll tax problem and the arguably more serious destabilisation of her Cabinet over Europe.

After ten years in power, the leader herself was unable to provide any obvious solution to this twin-peaked volcano and was rudely removed, in a way suffered by no Tory leader before her.

The electorate was deprived of its chance to deliver a final verdict on the leaderene, while Tory MPs and members could forever after claim – correctly – that she had never suffered an election defeat as leader.

Had Margaret Thatcher been allowed to continue the course of her leadership and take her party into the 1992 (or it might have been 1991) election, the Thatcherite bubble would have been punctured and the Conservatives might just have been able to embark on a proper period of reconstitution, untroubled by the poison of an improper coup. As it is, too many Conservatives continue to prescribe the wrong medicine at times of electoral vulnerability. 

David Cameron managed to get the party as far as he did in 2010 because he had understood the need to speak to a non-Thatcherite electorate. Some of that modernising strategy may have thrown up a few red herrings, notably same-sex marriage, but it remains emphatically the right approach for a party that still needs to prove it can connect with the electorate at large.  

It is not even clear that full-blown austerity is either the right approach or the one that engenders the confidence of British people. Somewhere out there is a careful balance of cuts without economic pain. It may well be what we are seeking.

Until the Conservative party truly gets over its Thatcher moment, it will never genuinely start to become a national party once again. The Thatcherite agenda is not some sort of holy writ version of ‘authentic conservatism’. It was a controversial panacea for its time (drawn as much from nostrums of classical liberalism as anything else) that found its place in a pragmatic party of broader principles. 

It is time to embrace the 21st century.

It is simple: we cannot allow the offensive and malicious Ken Livingstone back into City Hall

Craig Barrett 11.39am

Polls polls polls! "Boris lead narrows!" "Ken less popular than his party!" "Boris more popular than Tories!" "Only 12% of people believe that Ken is honest!"

While opinion polling has become much more sophisticated, anyone who watched the 1992 general election coverage on Easter Monday would know that only one poll matters: when you enter your booth and wield your pencil (unless you live in Tower Hamlets, of course).

With just one week to go until the election for London’s mayor, the current polling serves only to allow campaigners to twist and spin to whatever advantage possible and to remind people (like me) that we should be doing more to help.

I feel a bit sorry in some ways for the London Labour party. They have had a candidate forced on them who seems to owe no loyalty to them barring the right to campaign under their banner and deploy their activists for his own ends.

Had Labour picked someone else, Mr Livingstone, who believes the mayoralty his divine right, would have run as an independent candidate as he did in 2000.

Mr Livingstone’s campaign is a goulash of undeliverable policies, bold but inaccurate pronouncements about his Tory opponent, and craft attempts to shift the media’s focus away from his own activities. It is not so much that Mr Livingstone is a stranger to the truth, it is more that lying and smoke-screens come easier to him.

To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that he has no power to restore the EMA, or that the TfL ‘cash mountain’ is intended for investment rather than fare giveaways. To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that the only experience he has to validate his comments on Boris Johnson’s tax affairs comes from his own hypocritical tax avoidance. To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that what spews from his mouth is offensive to one group of Londoners or another.

Mr Livingstone has given us no compelling reasons to vote for him; no policies on which any Londoner can be certain of his delivering. His crony-aplenty, wasteful record in City Hall speaks for itself.

Contrast that figure with Boris Johnson, who has actually delivered on his promises - whether policing, sustainable housing, tax freezes and others - and whose plans are both costed and practical.

But above all else, consider two vital points. First, I am not old enough to remember Mr Livingstone’s reign as leader of the Greater London Council but I know enough to understand it for what it was: a publicly funded one man crusade of self-justification, with money poured down the drain to embarrass Mrs Thatcher’s government or to challenge its actions in the courts.

The Mayor of London must speak for the city with an independent voice, but they must also be able to co-operate with central government to ensure the best for the city. For at least the first three years of the next mayor’s tenure there will be a Conservative politician in 10 Downing Street and while Mr Johnson and Mr Cameron may not be close personally, they do at least have a mutual understanding and interest.

Boris Johnson is a doughty fighter who has regularly exercised his inherent independence to seek the best for London. Mr Livingstone’s egomania and pathological hatred of the Tories will mean that were he to be elected next week, it would be the start of at least three years of pitched battles on meaningless fronts, all paid for by London’s rate payers.

Second, and perhaps most important, Mr Livingstone’s public utterances over the past few months demonstrate the type of man he is.

Whether suggesting that a councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham ought to “burn in hell…and…flesh be flayed for demons for all eternity”; whether suggesting that gay bankers in the Middle East could be mutilated; whether suggesting that London’s Jewish population is too rich to vote Labour; or whether simply another cheap insult at a critic, Mr Livingstone appears oblivious to the effect of his own words.

It is not good enough for the Labour party to say “Ken is just being Ken”, or words to that effect. Mr Livingstone is no Jed Bartlet, and the fact that many in the Labour party are doing their best to distance themselves from their own candidate shows the whole strategy is a farce.

In a few months, the eyes of the world will be on London and other cities around the country as Britain hosts the Olympic & Paralympic Games. Boris Johnson may be gaffe-prone but unlike Mr Livingstone his gaffes are rarely offensive and certainly not malicious. We in this great and historic capital city cannot afford to have as our mayor a man who appears to set his stall deliberately to offend others.

For this reason, above all others, I urge you to back Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk

How to thaw the frosty relationship between the political class and the public

Iain Martin 11.07am

Like all other political anoraks, I spent my Easter Monday gluttonously indulging in chocolate and BBC Parliament’s re-run of the 1992 general election night.
As someone whose political memory began in 1997, it shocked me both how much and how little has changed in politics.
Recession, the break-up of the union, rising home repossessions and rising levels of unemployment are once again the key issues of the day. The challenges we face are not new challenges but challenges we have faced at many points in our history and the solutions we as a ‘politcial class’ propose are rather uninspiringly similar to those used in the past.
As a party which is so dominated by historians, it is hardly surprising that the best solutions we have are nods to the past, such as deregulation, the right to buy your council house and enterprise zones (which Nik covered last August); nor should this be taken as a bad thing.
It is a good thing that the polarised debates of the past around socialism and capitalism are no longer. Yes, we still have the political cycle and the natural oscillation between the ‘left’ and the ’right’ - change is fundamental and forever will be. It is both heartening and shameful that our politics has converged to a point where the cliff-edge for families to receive child benefit is one of the main talking points.
While avoiding the needless and misinformed romanticising of 1950s Britain as a close-knit society, intrinsically egalitarian and altruistic, it is striking how more than ever what matters most to people is the ability to consume, to have some luxuries, to afford a second holiday.
As a society we recognise the challenges we face, we all have friends, acquaintances or family members who have suffered from the recession; we can see how young people are struggling to find work, we want the government to act. This Government has acted by raising the personal tax allowance, by lowering corporation tax, through welfare reform.
The Government must do more to protect the most vulnerable and get the lowest paid back into work, yet it knows to go too much further would mean greater restraints on spending or increasing the burden on higher earners.
Society has been well briefed by politicians of all sides on the need for ‘austerity’, yet when austerity bites society is, in some quarters, rejecting it. This hypocrisy is regrettable, though understandable given the political climate we are living in.
Arguably the biggest challenge facing this Government is the disconnection between the people who run the country and the people who live in it. It is by no means a problem caused by this Government but one which it much address if it is to achieve its goals.
 
In 1992, Britain opted for John Major - a leader who they trusted, who understood them, who was a safe pair of hands at a time when Britain required someone to drag this country out of a recession.
Britain rejected the triumphalist, flashy, arrogant pseudo-socialist Neil Kinnock in favour of a firm hand on the tiller. The highest turnout ever seen in a general election demonstrated the nation’s trust in a man who represented Britain’s psyche at that time better than any of the alternatives.
We, as a party, won votes in all parts of the country and astonishingly acheived a better swing in Scotland than anywhere else in the country. The ‘one-nation’ tradition was preserved.
Eighteen years later we have a deeply divided nation with life expectancy, average earnings and unemployment so wildly heterogenous across our nation. This, sadly, is reflected in the political geography which now exists and the obvious north/south divide which has emerged in recent years. Much of this must be attributed to the cynical, unsustainable, politically motivated, short-sighted policies of the previous Labour government who ‘solved’ unemployment through public sector job creation in the north.
Political disengagement is often measured by the strength of the ‘other’ parties and in a recent poll UKIP acheived 11 per cent support, enough to put anyone off their dinner.
It would be easy to dismiss UKIP as a temporary sponge for the disaffected (and Prof Tim Bale did so persuasively for the Spectator yesterday).
But to dismiss UKIP entirely would be a grave folly. Since 1992, we have lived through internal bickering on matters European, cash for questions, cash for honors, cash for access, an expenses scandal, broken promises and unpopular ’liberal’ interventionism. Westminster has shrunk into a self-absorbed, self-obsessed and at times self-loathing bubble fuelled by the tribal and vindictive media. It is no surprise that the public as a whole are more sceptical of politicians than ever.
 
In the cities and towns of Britain there are millions whose lives are barely touched by the actions of politicians. They ask themselves: ultimately who can make a difference to my local area, to my local schools and communities? They just want clean, safe streets and opportunities for their children.
The Government’s solution to this is truly exciting. The Localism Act, wholesale reform to the schools system and, most notably, directly elected mayors in our towns and cities.
We now have an irreversible cult of celebrity which pervades urban Britain. Many friends in my hometown of Whitley Bay idolise the likes of Alan Shearer and Cheryl Cole but could not name their MP (Labour’s deputy chief whip Alan Campbell, for what it’s worth) or their local councillors.
Directly elected mayors are a way of bridging the gap between Westminster and the public. Naturally, Whitehall is disinclined to cede power. But this could be a genuinely transformative move towards a more one-nation form of government.
 
It must be allied to lasting political reform. The Government must seriously look at reform of the trade union movement and funding of political parties, of course, and it will no doubt do this.
What it must not ignore, however, is the selection and subsequent election of MPs. The death of political party membership can be taken as a surefire sign of dissatisfaction and disengagement with the political system. To dismiss the decline in party membership as an irrelevance would be to miss one of the fundamental problems in modern British politics: the lack of charisma, the lack of inspiration, the lack of energy from our political elite.
Time after time, we see our politicians on the television in suits looking as though they are funeral-bound, morosely defending or attacking the government of the day’s position like puppets.
Where are the characters? Those who can motivate through speech and action the voters to engage in debate? They have disapperared in part due to the media’s obsession with gaffes, thus influencing leaders into promoting bland but safe candidates, but in part due to the decline in local political activism and membership.
The typical local party selection meeting is attended by a very small number of members who rarely represent the demographic of their constituencies. It is staggering that in many cases someone who might represent 70,000 constituents can be selected by less than a hundred local party members. Or in the Labour party’s case, a den of union fixers.
Each party has a responsibility to broaden their outreach. The open primaries which were trialled by the Conservative party at the last election were an excellent start. They encouraged people as Dr Sarah Wollaston, who had not even considered a role in politics, to stand for election.
To introduce open primaries across the country would require both financial investment (opening the possibility of state funding) and political investment, it would certainly be a radical reform requiring an immense amount of political will. It is decisions like this that can define governments as genuinely radical, that can be quietly transformational. To simply trust that the ‘lost generation’ will naturally return to the fold would be to ignore a fundamental problem and to miss a rare opportunity to make a lasting difference.

Boris Johnson and the Angel in the Marble

David Cowan 10.15am

Boris Johnson is the darling of the Tory grassroots. From the pulpit of his Telegraph column he has hurled bread to his Tory base. His support for tax cuts, higher police numbers and his stance on Europe reveal a populist streak. He has earned the affection of ordinary Tory voters in a way no other Conservative politician, including David Cameron, has managed.

That is not to say Boris Johnson is a Tory ideologue. He is a very much a Tory pragmatist who has tried to appeal to the liberal metropolitan London electorate with substantial increases in the London Living Wage, criticism of housing benefit reform, and support for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Appealing to the outer suburbs will not be sufficient for a successful re-election campaign. Getting out the vote will be his first priority and that means he has to appeal to a very broad range of people.

This approach has risked making attempts to identify Boris Johnson’s political philosophy like nailing jelly to the wall, but his appeal to the traditional Tory base and the wider liberal metropolitan electorate has been reconciled by the man himself:

“I’m a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy, but you are not going to help people express that duty and satisfy it if you punish them fiscally so viciously that they leave this city and this country. I want London to be a competitive, dynamic place to come to work.”

This is reflected in his impressive record as Mayor (see my earlier blog here), with greater investment in public infrastructure, falling crime rates, and the freezing of council tax. But Boris seems to lack a singular, large achievement that people can easily identify.

By contrast, Ken Livingstone has developed his own narrative by attempting to transform the Mayoral Election into a referendum on ‘Osbornomics’.

Boris Johnson’s personal popularity and impressive record may be enough to secure a second victory but it will do very little for the Conservatives in London. Polling puts the party well behind Labour. This may well mean that the Conservatives will lose the London Assembly but, more seriously, it will also mean a lack of support in the London constituencies that are needed to win the next General Election in 2015, such as Hammersmith.

Boris Johnson must use his time in power to see the Conservative voter in the London electorate as a sculptor sees “the angel in the marble”, as the Times claimed Benjamin Disraeli once did. There are limitations to the Mayor’s powers, but the key to establishing a wider Tory base could lie in his ‘One Nation’ vision.

One of the basic foundations of ‘One Nation’ conservatism has been the ‘property-owning democracy’, as popularised by Anthony Eden and first made a reality by Harold Macmillan’s ambitious 1950s housing programme. Boris Johnson could take this one step further by establishing a new generation of property-owners, and therefore more likely to vote Tory, by implementing a Right to Own scheme, as proposed by five Conservative MPs in ‘After the Coalition’.

Under the Right to Own scheme tenants of social housing would have an automatic share in the equity of the property which they could then choose to sell onto the open market. The equity owned by the tenant would then be used to help pay for a new private property and thus begin to climb the private property ladder. The rest of the money from the sale of the property would then go to the new ‘mayoral development corporations’, which will replace the London Development Agency, and be invested into new modern social housing to meet ever increasing demand in London. This would drive down housing prices and open up access to private property in London’s deprived areas, thus increasing the number of property-owners in London.

Coverage of this year’s mayoral election will inevitably focus the personalities of Boris and Ken. But Conservatives cannot lose sight of the long-term future of the party in London. A new generation of homeowners, supported by efficient infrastructure, effective policing and a prudent City Hall would provide a new Tory base in London from which to secure an overall majority in 2015.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

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Might Osborne give green light to Thames airport to keep Boris in City Hall?

Nik Darlington 11.35am

The Times (£) leads this morning with another story abour the Chancellor’s heavily trailed Autumn Statement, in which he will commit the Government to a ‘global hub’ airport in the south-east of England.

Mr Osborne will say that “all options” are under consideration, which raises the possibility of the Mayor of London’s pet project - an entirely new airport in the Thames Estuary - receiving official backing.

Mr Osborne will…use the Government’s new determination to spend on infrastructure to argue that Britain will emerge better equipped to grow. The proposals for a Thames Estuary airport, either on a man-made island or the Isle of Grain in Kent, will not be among 40 projects spelt out today.

But Mr Osborne’s Treasury documents will commit the Government to maintaining a global hub airport in the South East and will state that “all options” will be given full analysis next year. Despite doubts about how such an airport could be funded, it marks the first time that the Treasury has said that the idea would receive a full hearing.

Last year, David Cameron appeared to rule out the option of building a new artificial island - dubbed ‘Boris Island’ - but this would appear to be back on the table. An alternative, built on an existing island, has been sketched out by the architect Lord Foster of Thames Bank. Estimated costs range between £40bn and £50bn.

The first important point to make is that such an airport, if it went ahead, would be a stunning demonstration of British innovation and ambition. Striking an emotional chord should not rule the entire operation, but it matters. At a time when the world’s economic axis is spinning eastwards - though it seems hackneyed to say it - this project would be a sign that Britain at least hadn’t given up the ghost.

The second important consideration is of course cost. Fifty billion pounds is an awful lot of money that Britain, on the surface of things, can ill afford. Ministers already appear determined to push full steam ahead with the embarrassing High Speed 2 railway at a cost of more than £30 billion. Small price to pay to get from London to Manchester a few minutes quicker.

HS2 will gobble up the lion’s share of British domestic infrastructure spending over the next couple of decades. So where, as the Times asks, will the money come from for a new airport? A report published last week by Boris Johnson showed how a new hub airport, properly designed, could begin to pay for itself by attracting inward investment. My expectation is that the private sector would be approached to meet some of the upfront costs, perhaps in the form of special infrastructure bonds, or even with a direct contribution (as with Crossrail).

A new airpot has been criticised by some environmental groups, such as the RSPB, who have concerns for the unique birdlife in the estuary, and by some local MPs. Their defence is as justified as the one I often give myself when opposing HS2. I do not refute it. But I agree with Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, who wrote in the London Evening Standard that a new airport offers “the least harm for the greatest gain”.

Might there be another, more political reason, why George Osborne is increasingly willing to entertain the Mayor of London’s imagination?

The plans will not be analysed by the Government until next year. That puts off a decision, in all likelihood, until 2013. Building would be unlikely to commence until shortly before the 2015 General Election, if not afterwards. The Thames Estuary Airport Feasibility Review in 2009 suggested it could take until 2030 to complete.

Boris Johnson hopes - indeed, according to most polls, should expect - to be re-elected Mayor of London next year. He insists that he will serve another full four-year term, though gossip persists that he will seek a safe Conservative seat midway through that term in order to be in the House of Commons prior to the election in 2015. The overriding ambition is to be in a position to become Conservative party leader ahead of Mr Osborne.

But how would Boris feel if his grand projet was just getting underway? Boris is ambitious, of course, but he is also, by his own admission, a man with a “healthy dose of sheer egomania”. Having already lent his name to the capital’s bicycles, how could he resist overseeing the foundations being laid for his own island?

Boris Johnson believes passionately in this new airport. By giving it the green light, George Osborne might just manage to keep his rival in City Hall for long enough to keep his nose in front.