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.

Nick Clegg attempts to steal the TRG’s clothes

Alexander Pannett 8.31am

On Saturday a beleaguered Nick Clegg faced down his mutinous party at their Spring conference and attempted to re-define what set the Liberal Democrats apart from other political parties.

His speech gave an indication of the tactics he would use at the general election in 2015 as he seeks to win back the trust of the electorate.

It is interesting then, that he chose to steal TRG lexicon by declaring his party to be the true One Nation party in the UK.  This is a rather devious strategy to steal the centre ground from the more moderate wing of the conservative party, as represented by the TRG, intended to force David Cameron to the right of British politics and into the political wilderness.

The One Nation tag now appears to be the golden fleece of British politics.  First David Cameron “de-toxified” the conservative brand by embracing one nation “compassionate conservatism”. Then Ed Miliband talked about the need for “one nation banking” and now Nick Clegg has dragged his tired Lib-demonauts to claim the elusive one nation prize.

The effort is understandable. Much as Clausewitz would have counselled, he or she who takes the centre of British politics will win elections.  One nation conservatism strives for a market economy with social justice and supports equality, diversity and civil liberties.  It is precisely the political mantra that reflects the centre ground. This is why Tony Blair claimed the one nation mantle was “drapped around their shoulders” and promptly proceeded to win three successive elections for Labour.

Clegg might hope to consider himself a “One Nation” politician. Others such as Danny Alexander, Orange Book Liberals, and the new Liberal Reform Group may do too. Many Lib Dems, however, do not fit the description, and probably do not want to fit the description (much like the Labour party under Blair too).

Lib Dems should be proud of many of their policies for the poorest, such as the Pupil Premium or increasing the lowest tax threshold, which Tories have rightly adopted in this coalition. But any party with such prejudice and antipathy towards wealth cannot hope to be “One Nation”.

As Lord Walker declared, One Nation is about helping those most in need and combining compassion with efficiency. Many Lib Dems can do compassion. Few want to sign up to the efficiency of the properly functioning free market. Nick Clegg’s proposed 50 per cent. capital gains tax in his general election manifesto was rightly derided by the Economist as “anti-business”. This is on top of other anti-capitalist rhetoric that has emanated from Lib Dem circles in recent years.

Even Blair’s New Labour, which as noted above tried to be “One Nation”, did not spend its time denigrating a section of the population, though the Countryside Alliance may have cause to disagree.

Only the Tories are self-confident enough in their approach to put up candidates in every corner of the nation. In the recent 2011 local elections, the Lib Dems only put up candidates in 59 per cent. of seats.  How can Lib Dems be the One Nation party if they don’t even attempt to represent all parts of the country?

It is the Tories who have truly attempted to promote policies that deliver a one nation mixture of market forces and social justice.  The Big Society, free schools, reform of retail banking and the localism agenda are all examples of making the markets work for society rather than society working for the markets.

One Nation is a good sound bite for Nick Clegg, as it was for Tony Blair, as it was just before the election for David Cameron. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and David Cameron is the only one properly to look, sound and act like a One Nation Conservative.

Follow Alex on Twitter @alpannett

A Shared Resolve

Rt Hon Danny Alexander MP 10.55am

This Coalition Government is delivering on its founding purpose – returning this country to a path of prosperity that is sustainable for the long term. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives should be proud of the decision we made to put the national interest before party politics. It wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do.

With massive market turbulence across Europe the backdrop to the election, both parties knew that economic stability could not be achieved without political stability too.

This historic decision and our shared resolve to tackle the deficit have resulted in interest rates staying low – keeping families in their home and workers in their jobs. Getting ahead of the curve on dealing with the deficit means that despite having a deficit larger than Portugal, UK government-backed bonds still attract interest rates that are as low as Germany’s. We have established financial discipline, motivated not by ideology, but because it is a vital precondition for effective government.

But recovering from the catastrophic legacy left by Labour cannot simply be achieved by tackling the deficit. Not only was the way of life they promised unaffordable, it relied disproportionately on the square mile of the city of London and an unsustainable house price bubble. Gordon Brown vowed to end boom and bust, but in the end presided over both.

We must ensure the lessons of Labour’s failure are learnt for good. Which means rebalancing the economy as well as tackling the deficit, and being straight with people about how long this will take, how hard it will be and what we will do to get it right.

Laying strong foundations for prosperity requires an economic strategy that invests in the future to deliver growth that is sustainable, balanced, competitive and fair. This strategy must seek to unlock our economy’s potential in every sector of the economy and in every part of the UK.

As a government that means prioritising infrastructure investment, as we already have in the Spending Review. The projects getting the go ahead have been assessed and selected on the basis of the economic benefit they will bring. As a result, we are spending more on transport infrastructure over these four years than Labour managed in their last four, which will help support businesses and growth across the entire country.

But we also realise that it is not possible just to impose growth from the centre. This government must also help local businesses and communities drive economic growth too. To this end, at the Liberal Democrat conference, I announced the launch of a £500 million Growing Places Fund. This money will go towards helping kick start developments that have been identified locally that are currently stalled by tough market conditions, difficult cash flow and a lack of confidence.

 Of course, our focus on supporting growth isn’t just about spending money – government must break down the barriers that regulation puts in the way too. The Red Tape Challenge is proving effective at identifying unhelpful and expensive regulations, but the government is tackling more controversial barriers too. That is why we must press ahead with our planning reforms. The current system means it can take years for development to get off the ground. A presumption in favour of sustainable development will ensure local protections are in place, but will help deliver much needed local homes and jobs.

Delivering growth also means looking beyond local and national horizons. Trade is vital too. In the 1980s, Britain led the agenda in developing the European Single Market, helping to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The Eurozone crisis means it’s now more important than ever that they deepen their integration, and for our own sakes it’s important we support them, to ensure we can continue to progress ensuring all areas of the European economy are open to British Business.

Finally, investment in the future also means investing in people – giving them the best opportunity possible to prosper. Raising the income tax threshold makes work pay better for millions in jobs on low incomes. Investment in apprenticeships and work experience placements is helping young people get started in a tough labour market. And even at the youngest age, the Pupil Premium is helping children from the poorest backgrounds get the best start in life.

We are putting this country on the path to prosperity for the long term, as well as introducing immediate incentives for growth. The years ahead will not be easy, and the economic storms surrounding us are still raging, but this government will not be distracted from its goal – a more prosperous future for us all.

Rt Hon Danny Alexander MP is Chief Secretary to the Treasury. This article first appeared in the most recent publication of Reformer, the journal of the Tory Reform Group.

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Worcester’s MP Robin Walker asks Prime Minister to reform school funding formula at PMQs

Nik Darlington 6.30am

Regular readers, please accept my apology for not having the opportunity to deliver my habitual PMQs review yesterday afternoon. Blame NHS waiting times and decrepit IT systems.

I was able to catch snippets of the occasion via Twitter and the Spectator's PMQs live blog as I sat twiddling my thumbs in a moribund doctor’s waiting room (the facility was moribund, not the practitioner - he wasn’t even in the building). The usual bumf came out the other side. Right-leaning commentators thought Cameron was let off the hook by Miliband on what should have been a difficult day; some left-leaning commentators (and usually sensible centrists such as Michael White) thought Miliband edged it. Instructively, I spotted a lot of Labour cheerleaders, for instance Mark Ferguson, miserably berating their leader’s performance. I have since watched a replay and, whilst I do often think the Labour leader does better than many people on the Government’s side see it, only the really blinkered could believe that Ed Miliband was any better than lamentable yesterday. His outing was summed up in that spluttering about “the Prime Minister being rattled”, when it was clear for all to see that the only person rattled was the Leader of the Opposition.

In absence of a full and proper appraisal, let me briefly touch on one question. No, nothing silly about Sepp Blatter and FIFA (though hats off to Stockton’s James Wharton, the Tories’ youngest MP, for knowing how to get himself on the news bulletins); instead, an issue that has been raised on these very pages.

In April, Robin Walker, MP for Worcester, wrote for Egremont about fairer funding and the pupil premium.

Social mobility is at its lowest standing in generations despite years of record spending by Labour. Children from all backgrounds should have access to good quality education - that has got to be right in the early years or social mobility will not improve. The pupil premium gives schools important extra support for the most disadvantaged children and incentivises schools to look after their most deprived cohorts rather than trying to move them on.

Combine this with reform of the funding formula and the Government could be undertaking some of the most beneficial changes to schools in many years.

This was Robin’s question yesterday:

Following the welcome introduction of the pupil premium, some headteachers in Worcester tell me that, due to long-term underfunding from the last government’s flawed formula, the money is needed to make ends meet, so it can’t be spent on the deprived pupils it was meant for. Can the Prime Minister assure schools in both Worcester and Witney, that this Government won’t just consult on the school funding formula, but will act to reform a complex system that’s been too wrong for too long?

He mentioned the Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney because Oxfordshire, along with Worcestershire, is part of the f40 group of the lowest funded education authorities in England. Robin Walker is on the f40 executive committee and is a leading campaigner for a fairer funding formula for schools in this country. In Worcestershire, the average pupil receives £370 less funding than the national average and an astonishing £762 less than schoolchildren in Birmingham.

The Prime Minister accepted that this unfair situation has to change. He mentioned that the difference between the worst and best funded children in the country is an outrageous £1,800 and pledged that the Government would make progress in redrawing the funding formula.

A former president of Harvard University, Derek Bok, said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Money isn’t everything in this world, but in education for one thing it certainly helps. The pupil premium is a brilliant initiative for schooling and social mobility but if in some areas all that it is doing is redressing existing imbalances and not providing a proper boost then more needs to be done. We can’t ignore it, so it is important that politicians keep demanding change.

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Fairer funding for schools must follow the Pupil Premium

Robin Walker MP 6.03am

Money isn’t everything but it matters. Reforms to improve discipline, allow greater freedoms for teachers, raise standards and permit schools to reward the best teachers - these policies will all help but the Government needs to get school funding right.

The aim of the pupil premium is to target resources where they are most needed. The Government has pledge £2.5 billion to help the most disadvantaged children in schools up and down the country - a recognition that real deprivation exists across diverse communities and not just in the big cities. The first payments have been made to schools this month and they mean an extra £430 for pupils on free school meals, £430 for looked after children and £200 for service children.

Ever since I became a parliamentary candidate, I have been campaigning for fairer funding for schools in Worcestershire because the current funding formula just doesn’t work. The gap between the best and worst funded education authorities kept on widening under the last Labour government, to the extent that the average pupil in Worcestershire receives £370 less than the national average and a staggering £762 less than children in the neighbouring education authorities of Birmingham. This is despite some parts of Worcester being among the 5 per cent most deprived areas of the country. Under Labour, money was fired off on a flawed formula that is widely understood to favour big cities over rural counties. It targets deprivation on the broadest level, whilst missing the smaller pockets. It fails to reflect activity in schools and hurts diverse areas.

This unfair situation had to change. Both our party and the Liberal Democrats went into the last general election with similar policies to target funding at the neediest children, so one of the most straightforward decisions to make in the Coalition Agreement was introducing the pupil premium.

Of course, as the numbers above show, the current pupil premium - whilst a step in the right direction - does not go far enough. The underlying system of school funding remains unfair; if reform does not come then the funding gap will continue to widen, to the detriment of some of the most disadvantaged children in the country.

Social mobility is at its lowest standing in generations despite years of record spending by Labour. Children from all backgrounds should have access to good quality education - that has to be got right in the early years or social mobility will not improve. The pupil premium gives schools important extra support for the most disadvantaged children and incentivises schools to look after their most deprived cohorts rather than trying to move them on.

Combine this with reform of the funding formula and the Government could be undertaking some of the most beneficial changes to schools in many years.

Robin Walker was elected MP for Worcester in May 2010. He is a member of the executive committee of the f40 group, which represents the lowest funded education authorities in England.

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