Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph included an opinion piece from my colleague Damian Green arguing, among other things, that if the Conservative Party gives the impression that it isn’t comfortable with modern Britain it is very unlikely that modern Britain will like us.
Fraser Nelson, the Editor of the Spectator, has responded on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog arguing that Damian’s analysis is about ten years out of date. Fraser is one of the most articulate and passionate champions of the Conservative cause, but he’s wrong about this on two counts.
First, he argues that the war has already been won - “the Tory Party has moved on” he says, pointing to some of the most impressive members of my intake. It is certainly true that the war within the Conservative Party has been largely won - most of my colleagues accept the need to appeal beyond the core Conservative vote, to talk about issues like the NHS, the environment and equality as well as more traditional Tory fare like tax, crime and immigration, though a few still don’t get it. But the real 'war' always was and is external, not internal.
Take ethnic minority electors: if Fraser really thinks that the war is won, he should take a look at the results of the Ethnic Minority British Election Study or Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling, both of which show the Conservative Party struggling to win support among this growing segment of the electorate because (I suspect) they perceive at least parts of our Party to have been at worst hostile to their coming to Britain and at best unsympathetic to the discrimination they experienced (eg the failure of the Major Government - despite the then Prime Minister being a progressive on race issues - to hold an inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence).
I suspect that Fraser would reply that it is the imaginative policy thinking of some of my colleagues to which he refers that will change attitudes among these voters, not vague talk of being comfortable with modern Britain. And to a degree, he would be right - but policy on its own isn’t the answer. Most voters don’t have a detailed knowledge of each party’s policies (they do however pick up on remarks that directly affect them - a surprising number of black and minority ethnic voters in my constituency know that the Prime Minister attacked multi-culturalism in an otherwise excellent speech on security in Munich in February 2011) - they decide how to vote based on their perception of what or who each party stands for. And if you have a damaged brand it colours the perception of all your policies. Take the example Fraser gives: he argues that many people are concerned about immigration and are quite capable of separating this from concerns about race. He is absolutely right - black and minority voters in my constituency are just as concerned as everyone else about the level of immigration and the resulting pressure on public services. But if they and other voters think a party is uncomfortable with multi-cultural Britain, they will draw conclusions about the motivation behind its immigration policy.
Fraser’s second error is to view modernising the Conservative Party as being about appealing to ethnic minority voters, the LGBT community and metropolitan liberals. To be fair to him, he’s not alone in having this view - and it’s hardly surprising that many people have that impression because these are the groups that the modernisers of the last 1990s/early 2000s tended to talk about. But you could equally talk about public sector workers, Fraser’s fellow Scots or those who live in the great cities of the North and the Midlands.
The real war then is to change perceptions of the Conservative Party among millions of people whose values on issues like the family, reward for hard work, crime and Europe are Conservative but who do not think of themselves as Conservatives. More people tell pollsters that they would never vote Conservative than say they would never vote Labour. This is not something we should take pride in.
David Cameron won a battle in 2010, securing an additional two million Conservative voters, but the war has not been won - indeed arguably we have gone backwards since 2010, particularly I would guess among public sector workers because of the painful decisions we have had to take to deal with the financial mess we inherited. It is a war that must be won if we want to see a majority Conservative Government.
UPDATE: Fraser has very kindly updated his post with a reply. He makes two good points.
First, lack of organisation on the ground is a factor in Scotland and the great cities of the North and the Midlands. As a former Director of Campaigning I would never underestimate the importance of organisation on the ground, but our organisation wasn't any better in Welsh marginal seats than Scottish ones so this doesn't explain why we did much better in the former than the latter. Second, there is a danger that focusing on various groups eg ethnic minority voters or public sector workers means not focusing on the big picture - having the right policies and being perceived as competent. Of course these things are very important, but many of the people who won't even consider vote for us don't take this view because they think we are incompetent or object to specific policies - they simply don't think we are 'for' people like them.
But Fraser also misunderstands my position in two ways. I am not arguing for the Party to appear modern per se (though better that than stuck in the past) or for too much focus on the diversity of our MPs (though having a Parliamentary Party that is representative of the country as a whole in every sense - profession and geography as well as race, gender etc - is no bad thing): the core of my case is that we need to change perceptions of the Party among certain sections of the electorate so that all those who share our values are prepared to consider voting for us. I am One Nation Conservative not in the sense of believing we need to seek the centre ground but in wanting to see the Conservative Party appeal to all sections of society so that we have a chance of selling the radical Conservative policies this country needs.
Since I am trying to convince Fraser, let me end with an example close to his heart. He would like the Government to allow private companies to make a profit from running free schools - or failing that, for this policy to be included in the next Conservative manifesto. If we tried to sell that policy at the moment, many people would assume that our motivation was to privatise public services. My argument is that we need to change perceptions so that most people see our motivation as being passionate about improving state schools.