In some Conservative circles modernisation has followed the path of “human rights” and “health and safety”: perfectly sensible concepts which have been distorted over time so that they are now boo words. In the minds of some, Tory modernisers are obsessed by gay marriage and wind farms to the exclusion of the interests of most people. As it happens, I am in favour of gay marriage and well-sited wind farms, but they are not at the centre of political debate.
The need to modernise Conservatism, not just as a one-off event but as a continuous process, has been clear to many of the great Conservative leaders of the past 150 years. The purpose of that modernisation was always to reach out to groups in society who held Conservative values, but did not vote Conservative, or even think of voting Conservative. When the franchise was extended in the mid-19th century, and Disraeli identified working class Conservatives as “angels in marble”, a potential source of support which had not yet been carved out, he modernised the party’s message and machinery to bring them on board.
More than a hundred years later, in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher did essentially the same thing. She identified a group who were not privileged, but who were patriotic and entrepreneurial, and realised that although they had spent their lives voting Labour they shared Conservative values. Essex man was born, she sold them their council houses and allowed them to get on in life, and the rest is history. So, incidentally, is the Labour Party in large parts of the south of England.
The modernisation push which started ten years ago, and which has become so heavily criticised, had a similar impulse, though instead of pushing out the Conservative message to new areas, it was attempting to reclaim those who had been seduced away by New Labour. In particular educated women, who had formed the basis of every Conservative majority since World War Two, were deserting the party. Young people were similarly thin on the ground at Conservative gatherings. Ethnically, we did not reflect modern Britain.
At this point it sounds as though I am going to ask “Where did it all go wrong?” But I don’t think it did all go wrong by any means. David Cameron’s changes both in tone and content of policy meant that we are a more open-minded and socially liberal party than we had become, and that is much more in tune with modern Britain. This is one of the reasons we are the largest party in Parliament for the first time since the 1990s. Also it is the case that the changes I think are necessary are long term ones. For next May we have a really strong case to make on economic recovery, which is of course the dominant issue, and which will carry us to victory.
But there are legitimate criticisms that this latest bout of modernisation has not reached all the areas it needs to reach. It has come to be seen as too metropolitan, aimed too much at those who are already affluent, and too narrowly based in geographic terms. After we have won in 2015, I want to see us win again in 2020, and win bigger, and to do that we need to bring our politics of hope to groups who have not listened in the past. Being modern is not the same as being fashionable. It is an immutable law that if you are fashionable today you will be unfashionable tomorrow. That’s how fashion works. We need to make deeper changes, and be prepared for permanent change.
One key task for modernisers is not to be responsible for another round of culture wars within the Tory Party. The battle between Mods and Trads which took place after 1997 was debilitating and contributed to Labour dominance. There are policies and priorities which are modernising, but which are not solely the concern of the left of the party, or of a small elite of the chattering classes. It is not about making Conservatism acceptable to the Guardianistas. It is about making it acceptable to people who share our values but either don’t know it or don’t care because their attitude to Tories is somewhere between indifference and hostility.
The underlying appeal of modernisation is to take the Tory desire to support institutions which are repositories of wisdom and good practice and make them available to as many people as possible. So we extend the reach of marriage, of excellent schools, and of home ownership. We look first to communities when they can provide the best solution, and to the state only when we must. In performing these acts of true modernisation what we do is to modernise the party in a way that realistically widens our appeal bot because we being less Conservative, but because we have persuaded new people that the Conservative Party cares them about them, and can give them what they need.
The Tory ideal is fixed: prosperity based on a free market economy in an orderly society. For citizens, individual freedom with the protection of strong communities. For the country, a global outlook with a strong British voice in world affairs. The challenge is to find policies, people and a tone that makes these principles real as we head to the third decade of the 21st century. This is why we need true modernisation.
What changes do we need? At the level of high principle, we need to be relentless in ensuring at all our social and economic policies promote opportunity for all. The most damaging accusation made against the Conservative Party is that it is a conspiracy of the privileged. It is one of those caricatures that we cannot allow to be even very slightly accurate. This is why, for example, it is much better for us to take millions of those earning normal incomes out of higher rate tax, than it is to cut the highest rate. People believe us when we say we want to cut taxes, because we always have. Let’s cut them for those hard working families who are just getting by.
Opportunity is bound up with the chance of an excellent education whatever your background. This Government has made many changes which enhance the lives of those who depend on their local state school being excellent. This is a big step forward, and one of the many reasons for voting Conservative in 2015 is the preservation of these reforms. But we should be more radical. We have a much more varied set of schools than we had previously, with academies, free schools, and schools that have become specialists in certain areas.
There is no reason in this varied landscape to prevent the creation of schools that specialise in academic excellence. Every big city in this country should have a number of such schools, and every rural area at least one. They will be one route to allowing more opportunity for children from non-privileged backgrounds to make it. I don’t want to bring back the school system of the 1950s. We don’t need to go back to the old debate about grammar schools and secondary moderns. We do need the ethos of the remaining grammar schools spread around the country, so that schools based on academic excellence are a realistic choice for everyone. This is a modernising proposal which, I note in passing, is supported by many of my colleagues on the right of the party. Modernisation can be a unifying factor within the Conservative Party.
But as well as policies which spread opportunity we need to show that we are genuinely on the side of the groups who have traditionally been a tough audience for Conservatives. We need to identify the 21st century angels in marble.
The first of these is young people. Those who think that Russell Brand speaks for a generation should ask them their views. They are individualist and tough minded. The under 30s are the age group most likely to oppose increasing taxes to provide welfare benefits for the poor. They are less sentimental about our liberal institutions than the elderly. Two thirds of those born before 1939 think the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements. Less than one third of those born after 1979 do.
The problem for the Conservative Party is that these young people are, more predictably, just as liberal in their social attitudes. They are relaxed about drugs, sex, alcohol, and different family structures. They are, frankly, more consistent than many older people, and certainly more consistent than the major political parties. They are economically and socially liberal. They don’t like paying taxes and they don’t like being told how to live their lives. This is surely an opportunity for modernising Conservatives. Not only because of the controversial measures we have taken, such as supporting equal marriage, but the ones we don’t talk about enough, like abolishing Labour’s ID cards. Being the party of freedom is an attractive message to young people.
Part of UKIP’s appeal to the anxious and angry is a social conservatism that promises nothing will change, and new people, and new ideas, will be kept out. Conservatives should note that if we follow suit, we will turn off millions of potential supporters who have decades of voting opportunities ahead of them. UKIP if you want to: I would prefer to welcome young people to a party whose values they share, if only we bothered to listen to them. As a sign of how we listen, we should think about giving votes to 16 and 17 year olds.
The next group to whom the Conservative message has seemed alien is the many different ethnic minorities in the country. This is familiar territory for some of us. In 2010 36% of people voted Conservative. The number among ethnic minorities was just 16%. As the relative size of the minority population grows, especially in certain parts of the country, that 16% figure is going to have to increase if there are going to be Conservative Governments in ten, twenty and thirty years’ time.
Some of the starkest figures are for first-time minority voters in Conservative seats. In Tory Dewsbury 30% of first-time voters are non-white, in Tory Bedford it is 35%, in Tory Wolverhampton South West it is 45%, and in Tory Hendon it is 55%.
This is not a reason to despair. One of the commonest conversations among thoughtful Tories is about the disparity between the values of many minority communities, which are essentially Conservative, and their voting patterns, which are anything but. We cannot re-write history. Enoch Powell said what he said, and Norman Tebbit’s cricket test is still held against us. But we can make clear in our individual communities that the Conservative Party has moved on. It is local change that will have most impact in convincing sceptical members of minority communities that the Conservatives are comfortable with them. It is in the targeting of membership drives, and the selection of council candidates, and association officers, that the tide will start turning. Of course we should have more minority MPs, and of course every senior member of the Party should consider the effect on specific communities of any comment they make. But effective change will only have come when it not noteworthy that a leading Conservative is from a minority. That effective change needs thousands of decisions made almost entirely at a local level.
One national policy which would contribute to this change is a relentless commitment to teaching English to those who live here but can’t speak it, and an equally relentless commitment to making it worth their while to do so. The debate about translating instructions about how to claim benefits into many languages has been a small part of this for many years, but we need to put it in a wider context. We want people who have come here to share in the attractions of life here, and they can only do that with a command of the language. Teaching English to newcomers should be a high priority.
One other area where it is clear that the Conservative Party needs to perform better is the North of England. One of the best developments in Government over the past couple of years has been the determination of George Osborne to promote an agenda which gives more power, money, and essential infrastructure to the North. What is remarkable, and alarming, is that this determination of a Conservative to create new centres of power is counter-intuitive. This is in fact a modern version of the City-based municipal pride that was brought into the Conservative Party by Joseph Chamberlain. I believe this strand of modernising the Party, and indeed the country, will only come when we have Mayors in every major City. I know that people have shown in referenda how wary they are of this idea, but if we want proper localism in this country we have to create big local figures.
We may also need to learn from other countries, such as Germany, which have more decentralised banking systems. Regionally based banks could play a key role, along with the transport improvements already planned, in creating a true Northern Powerhouse which would in no way hinder the success of London, but which would play an essential role in spreading that success around. In all the analysis of where Conservatives need to do better there is one common factor. It is the lack of proximity of Conservatives in the daily lives of those who are least likely to vote Conservative. If people never meet another Conservative, never hear from a Conservative councillor, because there aren’t any in their city, and assume they will never vote for a Conservative MP, then it is asking a lot of them to start voting Conservative.
The Party organisation needs to reflect this. Of course for the coming months all efforts go into marginal Parliamentary seats. But after May it is just as important to put our professional effort and resources into rebuilding the party in the great northern cities. The first council seats we win back in Manchester or Liverpool, or other places we have none, like Norwich, are just as worthy of celebration as a by-election win, because they will show that we have not retreated to our heartlands. A modern party does not accept no-go areas, partly because the make-up of different parts of the country changes over time.
True modernisation is not about responding to what others are doing by triangulation in the way that became habitual in the 1990s and which, over time has contributed to the disillusionment with the political mainstream. It is about taking Tory principles and asking how best they can contribute to the Britain we now live in, with all its varieties.
I know there will still be some who think that the Conservative Party should make clear it disapproves of modern Britain, and should aim to restore the past. I think that’s wrong in principle, because we should be offering hope, and because modern Britain offers opportunities for far more people than ever before. I also think it’s politically short-sighted, because it leads to a relatively small part of the population voting for you really enthusiastically. It’s a way to win by-elections, but it’s not a way to enthuse a whole country, or set out a practical agenda for a Government.
The Tory party is at its best when it is optimistic and offering opportunity to the many. We have been through a tough economic period, but we are on the way up, so now is absolutely not the time to lose our self-confidence. We can have an offer that will attract people who are not yet supporting us. It needs to be modern, optimistic, and recognisably Tory, to be authentic. But it is an offer that means not only that we can win successive elections, but deserve to win them. That’s what matters.
The Rt Hon Damian Green MP served as Minister of State in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice from September 2012 to July 2014