Monday, 1 March 2010

Where is the Conservative future?

The trouble with Tory party presentation right now is it's not getting across a properly holistic message. Ticking off the government for a disastrous economic policy and telling us we have endless misery ahead is hardly an enticing approach.

This may be a problem with the media not focusing on what the party wants to say. But it seems more evident from what we do get to see and hear that it's the campaign strategy that's at fault.

When addressing realities to the British public the Tory party must acknowledge that we have all become used to paternalistic and invasive government. This has to change of course - for budgetary reasons as much as its economic and socially disincentivising effects. But changes in the way government is expected to communicate cannot be made or appreciated overnight. To engage with the public today the Tory party needs to speak as Harold Macmillan, or even Harold Wilson, once did.

The message will, of course, be quite different. The public needs to be encouraged to take on the challenges of mending Britain for themselves. But the Tory party's role right now must be to explicitly set out an agenda of change across every aspect of economic and social life. The public needs to know that the Tory party understands the depth and breadth of the issues that afflict us and will support the population's own skills and energy in tackling them all, towards a better life.

Instead, the Tory party focuses 90 percent of its message on attacking Labour for the economic mire we're in without offering any picture of the sunny uplands that can be the reward of individuals working together to overcome it.

People do need positive objectives. If they can be shown clearly where the problems lie, the path to tackle them, and the encouragement necessary from a government in waiting that they will receive every reasonable support in tax measures and business and social initiatives that enhance the private and third sectors, then people will be able to recognise and appreciate such messages and see a positive future ahead.

The small team presently determining the party's message at Tory HQ is simply not enough. Cameron focuses on attacking Brown for his redundancy. Osborne focuses on Brown's economic inefficiency. And Gove focuses on the introduction of a handful of 'free' schools and academies that no-one quite understands. Grayling, Grieve and Lansley get a word in occasionally. But overall, the public doesn't see a joined-up potential government, they just see a handful of Tories picking over isolated issues without a coherent message or strategy that addresses the lives of people or the nation's future as a whole.

Gordon Brown was wise enough to adopt Tory policy - on the budget - for the first two years of New Labour government. It helped ease the public into accepting change. Cameron seems to think that his socially conscious messages achieve the same thing. But the public are fed up with top down social engineering. Yet, while they do want change, they still need the messages of change to be delivered in the all-embracing way they've become used to over 13 years: especially when the country's future seems so fragile and uncertain.

Thatcherite Tories might be repelled by such a paternalistic approach. But Margaret Thatcher, gender confrontations aside, was an arch paternalist – concerned for the cost of eggs in the housewife's basket as much as telling us what was good for us all. Yet her accomplishments were not achieved in isolation, but through a high profile, active and effective ministerial cabinet.

Dave Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher. But he is supposed to be a communicator. At this moment he needs to communicate a broad and all-encompasssing message to the nation as a whole: that Conservatism is the country's salvation because it acknowledges the worth of individuals, of every status and from every sector, working with dignity together. And as a reflection of this, he needs to push forward his whole shadow cabinet team.

He needs to show that the nation's future is not about the personalities of Gordon or Dave, but about changing the whole ethos of government, giving people personal responsibility and supporting this with clear views from across the ministerial spectrum of just how renewal and a positive future can be reached over the lifetime of the next Conservative parliament.