This theory was put to me last night after Policy Exchange’s excellent Francis Maude lecture.
Here’s what it means – voters were unsure about us, they were unsure about what’s going on, they were unsure about the future. No-one was giving them a clear, unambiguous ‘this is why we are best’ and because the wisdom of crowds is a wonderful thing, we have a Coalition government.
What to do about that? First off, we need to understand why voters weren’t sure – of all politicians. They knew that Labour had come to the end of its road in office (rather like in 1979, or in 1997); they understood that Labour presided over and indeed encouraged in many ways, a huge and epoch-changing financial crisis; and they knew that once again, Conservatives would have to come in to clean up that mess. And yet – they didn’t give us an unambiguous majority to do so. Why was that?
There are probably lots of reasons but I think it boils down to two fundamental ones. Our narrative post-2008 was a very difficult one – I don’t think it could have been anything else – it was, we have to make cuts, and the world is a very different place than the last time we were in government so we understand that rather than just taking 10 or 15 per cent off budgets and saying get on with it, we must recast how government works in order to meet the challenges of the future. And secondly, we also understand that society is very different; we get that and we want to work with you, not hark back to some identity-riven, top-down, restrictive and restricted vision of the past.
Francis Maude’s lecture last night touched on much of this. The idea, though, that modernisation has in some way reached its zenith is completely wrong; as he rightly said, the Conservatives’ greatest tradition is that of modernisation. Disappointingly, though entirely sensibly, he ducked out of answering where he thought this Conservative party had not succeeded in that task.
I think there are some key things to consider. The first is that when you say Conservative to many people, they still think ‘Toryboy’, rich, out of touch, disapproving of me and my choices – with all sorts of implications for the potential pool of voters. The second is that no-one has easy answers to anything any more; if it were easy to fix everything, it would have been done. As we as a society have become richer, more consumerist (in every sense), and more outward-looking, so our politics have become more complicated.
I do bang on at great length about this government’s communications efforts. Rightly, they say they are more concerned about doing than just talking about it. And they are doing some great things, of course. But they need to explain. They need to paint us a picture of why and how. Voters’ attention spans are getting ever shorter – partly because in the rest of their lives, their choices and their capacity to control their own lives are so much greater, giving them a greater sense of agency. Yet the government as an institution (not just this one) seems to be ever less responsive, ever less relevant, and ever less part of the answer – but at every turn, ‘something must be done’ – a huge contradiction, but a fact nonetheless.
So how can we remove that hedge? How can we make sure that voters in 2015 aren’t still worried that Conservatives are out of touch, contemptuous of them, uncaring and uninterested?
I think there are three areas to work on. The first is social attitudes – that one is actually going pretty well, mostly; it’s about making sure that Conservatives adapt to the choices that individuals make in their own lives. Supporting marriage of whatever type, helping people who choose to do the right thing to succeed, making sure that aspiration and hard work are rewarded.
That’s also an economic question – but beyond that, we need to find news ways for people to have a stake in their surroundings. That’s partly through ownership of their own assets, but it’s also about greater control of and responsibility for their workplaces. The biggest thing we need to do in this sphere is to answer the crisis in capitalism. Many people do feel that capitalism no longer seems to behave responsibly – again, it’s about feeling a lack of control.
And the third thing we will have to do by 2015 is to be able to explain what we have done, how we have done it in a way that helps the voter, and what we want to do next and why. Not in lengthy policy pamphlets and manifestos (no normal voter will read them), but in short, straightforward ways that make sense and enable voters to trust us wholeheartedly, backed up by evidence that they see in their own lives.
None of that is going to be particularly easy but it has to be done. And it can be; because much of what is being implemented at the moment will start to take effect by then, but also because as an institution, the Conservative Party understands (albeit sometimes slowly) that, to coin a phrase from the 2005 leadership campaigns, to change is to win.