The Rt Hon Damian Green MP: Bright Blue’s Social Reform Conference

July 1, 2017

I want to thank Bright Blue for inviting me, but more importantly for providing an opportunity for serious Conservative thinking to take place. As we look ahead to the next five years we need this as much as ever before.

The emergence of Bright Blue on the Westminster Think Tank scene was a welcome moment for those of us who want to see the Conservatives pursuing a sensible, centre-right agenda, with as broad an appeal as possible.

And this conference today, and the topic in particular – social reform – demonstrate why Bright Blue is an important voice in this field and will continue to be so over the coming years.

I know many of you here today will be Conservative Party members, and many of you will therefore share my disappointment at the recent general election. We should not be completely downhearted. We won the most seats and the most votes. There are 13 Tory MPs in Scotland, and I now have Conservative colleagues representing Mansfield, South Stoke, Middlesborough South, and Walsall North. Of course I now discover a Labour MP as one of my neighbours in Kent, which is a less pleasant shock.

But to put our disappointment in perspective I first started writing pamphlets and making speeches saying the Conservative party needed to modernise in the late 1990s, when we had 165 MPs. Now we have 317.

I am not standing here and saying all we need to do is keep calm and carry on. We need to think hard, work hard, and change hard. We need to show how Conservative values and policies can work for those parts of the country, and parts of the population, who have turned away from us.

It is now clear that the root of our failure to win a majority last month lies in those aged 18 to 35, among whom Labour led the Conservatives by over 30 percentage points.

Education played an equally major factor in voting decision. According to Ipsos Mori, while the Conservatives had a 17 point lead among people with no qualifications, Labour led by 15 points among graduates.

While we can justifiably take heart from our total vote share and our growth in support among the working class, these figures show that we need to do much better to convince young metropolitan Britain that the Conservatives are the party for them.

We must be in no doubt that this failure has the potential to do serious long-term damage to our party if it isn’t tackled.

I therefore come to the conclusion that it is imperative that the modernisation of the Conservative Party starts again, and starts now.

I hope and expect this Parliament to last five years, but we need to start work now to make the full use of those five years. The first thing we need to do is to challenge the cliché that tory modernisation must be about hugging huskies, cuddling hoodie-wearing teenagers and PR stunts.

Modernisation in 2017 involves, as ever, listening to the complaints of those who are being excluded and developing both individual policies and an overall message which speaks to them. A country that works for everyone is Theresa May’s ambition, and it is exactly what we need to aim for, as successful Conservative leaders have in the past.

Throughout the last century, when faced with challenging circumstances such as these, our party has shown an inspiring capacity to recast our core beliefs in a manner that captures the prevailing mood of the era.

To redefine the importance of aspiration and opportunity in a way that shows we have something to offer for everyone in Britain.

Think of Benjamin Disraeli and his one-nation conservatism, dispelling the notion of the Tories as rich, unfeeling property owners by providing workers with employment protections that last to this day.

Or Mrs Thatcher, whose Right to Buy scheme created millions of new homeowners in the 1980s, transferring power and wealth away from the state to hardworking families.

These achievements and those of other modernising Tory Prime Ministers – from Churchill to MacMillan to David Cameron – show that renewing the party is not just about communication but actions that make a real difference to the lives of all those in Britain.

Theresa May has always believed that, so we have a Prime Minister who can repeat the successful modernisations of previous Conservative leaders and build that country that works for everyone.

It would be remiss to give a speech about the future of our country without addressing the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

The terrible events at Grenfell are a stark demonstration that there are communities in the UK who have been so let down over the years by state institutions they have come to the conclusion they have no voice and are not being heard.

This Government is determined to reverse that perception, and we have a bold and ambitious programme for achieving that end, to which I will return in a moment.

But it is clear that the some voters who abandoned the Conservatives at this election, did so because they believe we simply don’t care about people who live in tower blocks.

You know and I know that this couldn’t be further from the case.

And in the measures the Prime Minister has announced in the past fortnight to rehome the victims of Grenfell, ensure others across the country aren’t put at similar risk, and uncover the causes of the tragedy, she has demonstrated our commitment to govern for everyone in Britain.

It remains essential, however, that we not only do our utmost to, as Theresa May so rightly said, tackle the burning injustices at the heart of our society, but that we are also seen to be building a stronger, fairer, more prosperous Britain.

Talking a good game on social mobility and reforming public services is easy.

But actually doing the hard, detailed work necessary to overcome the complex problems and challenges that confront so many is much more difficult.

In short, if we are to bring young, educated, working Britain back to the Conservative Party, we need to make a reality of the promise to build a country that works for everyone.

To that end the Prime Minister has, in the Queen’s Speech, laid the foundations of a policy agenda I am confident will show the Conservatives don’t just talk about ending social injustices, we actually do it. Brexit is the most important challenge facing us in the next two years, but it must not and will not absorb all our attention. The domestic policy agenda will be the platform from which we will launch our recovery.

Theresa May’s first act as prime minister was to order an unprecedented audit of racial disparity across public services.

We will publish the results of this audit in the coming months, when it is complete, and this government won’t hesitate to act on its findings, however uncomfortable they may be.

We will take action to close the gender pay gap, by requiring companies with more than 250 employees to publish data on the pay gap between men and women, and push for parity in the number of public appointments going to women.

The government will bring forward a new Mental Health Bill, one that puts parity of esteem at the heart of treatment and ends the stigma of mental illness once and for all.

And we aim to get 1 million more people with disabilities into employment over the next ten years.

We have, in government, already made great strides in helping victims of domestic violence find refuge.

In this Parliament we will go further, and give all services dealing with domestic violence additional powers to tackle this scourge, from investigating cases, to care for victims, to the effects on families later in life.

As home secretary, Theresa May brought forward the Modern Slavery Act – the first of its kind in Europe – appointed the world’s first anti-slavery commissioner, and set up the Modern Slavery Taskforce.

We aim to go further in the next few years, and use the UK’s power in international bodies to finally put an end to criminals forcing men, women and children into illegal, dangerous and exploitative working conditions.

So those are our first practical steps demonstrating that Conservatives care, and Conservatives act. But these measures must be part of a crusade to argue that free markets, enterprise, and individual success can all play a part in creating a good society.

The discontent with capitalism since the 2008 crash, which is vaguely expressed as being anti-austerity, needs to be tackled head-on. If young people feel the world is not giving them an even break they look for radical change, even if what is being promised, by populists on the left or right, is just a better yesterday. UKIP hankers after the 1950s, Corbyn’s Labour the 1970s, with both hoping that nobody under 40 reads a history book and sees the glaring faults in those eras.

So what are the 2017 problems that a modernising Conservative Party needs to address?

Let’s start with housing. Home ownership levels are falling. This is a profoundly unconservative trend, so this government will fix the dysfunctional housing market. Housing needs to be more affordable so that the 20 and 30-somethings have the security they need to plan for their future.

We will meet our 2015 commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020 and will deliver half-a-million more by the end of 2022.

These houses will be high quality, matching the standard of those we have inherited from older generations, and include social housing that creates sustainable and integrated communities.

For those renting we will bring forward proposals to ban unfair tenant fees, encourage landlords to offer longer tenancies, and crack down on unfair practices in leasehold, such as escalating ground rents.

The second area where we need a distinctive Conservative message is in our cities. We have already achieved a huge amount ,with the creation of genuine local power centres through the Mayors, and the growing number of City Deals which put large sums of money under

the control of local institutions to regenerate and develop the cities.

We clearly are getting no electoral credit for this, partly because we have not developed and clear message about why we are doing this. The message is a combination of two essential Conservative principles. First, that decisions should be taken as locally as is practical. Secondly, that it is only through individual flair and ideas and freedoms that the dynamism of a great city comes to pass. All the central planning in the world does not create a London or Manchester or Glasgow—creative places where millions of disparate individuals find their own niche, and create new communities. Building on this to create a new City Conservatism is one of our challenges.

The third task for today’s Conservative modernisers is to develop the Industrial Strategy so that it gives hope to young workers that jobs will be available to them in tomorrow’s labour market. One of the great successes of Governments since 2010 has been in promoting job creation. Unemployment is at its lowest level for more than forty years, there are more women at work than ever before, and young people are significantly less likely to be unemployed than in most European countries.

The threats to this scenario in the future are new ones. Robots and Artificial Intelligence are much more likely to sweep away traditional areas of unemployment than any of the traditional worries we have about job creation. To respond to these threats requires the agility and flexibility that only free markets and entrepreneurial skills can provide, and that in the current political scene only the Conservative Party will support. Even if we fulfilled the left-wing fantasy of re-opening the coal mines, we would probably send robots down them to do the mining.

So we need new types of jobs, and higher levels of productivity to provide the wage increases that we also want to see. Hard work but stagnant wage growth is another recipe for political discontent that we see around us.

To avoid that, we need everyone to have access to a world-class education.

So we will ensure schools are fairly funded, and strengthen the teaching of literacy and numeracy in the early years so that all pupils – regardless of background – get the best possible start in life.

We will also reform technical education to put it on a par with academic qualifications to make sure our children have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future.

And we will continue with our ambitious programme of free schools and academies expansion, building at least a hundred new free schools a year.

All of these measures will not only work towards a more fair and just society, but also show the Conservatives are the party to create that society, and will be combined with a steady, sensible hand on the economy.

Because we know that only a vibrant and robust economy that creates the jobs and generates the tax revenues needed to invest in the National Health Service, schools, and other public services, must be made without saddling future generations with unmanageable debts.

It is an inconvenient fact, all but ignored by the opposition, that the deficit is still far too high, so I am pleased we have renewed our commitment to restore the public finances by sticking to the fiscal rules announced by the chancellor in the autumn statement, which will guide us to a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade.

I have picked three policy areas which we must get right to show that a modernising Conservative Party has the principles and policies to address the challenges facing Britain in the 2020s. There are of course many more and I expect Bright Blue to be bursting with ideas across the board. Indeed other Think Tanks are available, and I want them to compete to shape a modern Conservative message, which is new, but which puts into practical form Conservative principles.

In that classic Daily Telegraph slogan, Times Change, Values Don’t. Conservatives believe in free markets, individual liberty, a helping but not all-powerful state, strong defence and our traditional institutions as strongly as ever. But realistic Conservatives recognise that we need constant reform to defend those values. Fighting yesterday’s battles is a recipe for irrelevance. Tory Reform is the route to a successful party, and more importantly a successful country.

We have the capacity, the intellectual energy, the will to succeed, that means we remain the party that is best equipped to puts its values into practice. That is why we are in Government today, and need to remain in Government not just for the good but negative reason that the alternative is a front operation for the hard left, but for the better and positive reason that a reforming, modernising Conservatism is best for Britain. That’s what Theresa May’s Government is for, and that’s what I want to help bring about.

The Rt Hon Damian Green MP is the First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office