In a period of economic turbulence it is very easy for financial matters to crowd out other areas of policy. For the Conservatives in government that would be fatal as it is a long established caricature that the Conservative Party is there simply to ensure the sums add up. To allow economic considerations to trump the many other areas in which the Conservatives have an interest and also an impressive policy approach would be close to suicidal. That is why Conservatives need to set out with clarity and conviction all the areas of policy that they are tackling and the rationale behind them. For sure the need to get the economy on an even keel and creating wealth is critical to success but so is the need to ensure a balanced society and the need to get a proper balance between the collective and the individual. Conservatives have a story to tell in all these areas and they should tell it.
The government of course has a duty to create a framework for the economy, so that it is balanced, fair and performs well. However there is also a duty to create a framework for society so that it is balanced and fair as well, and government also needs to ensure that the balance between the individual and state is fair as well. The Conservatives have many policies that are about retuning areas that have become unbalanced in all these cases, creating a compelling narrative that links policy to all these areas will pay dividends. The prize is not simply victory at the next election; once in a generation there is a chance to shape the terms of debate not just for one election but a whole series of them. There is that opportunity now and the Conservatives are very well placed to seize it.
David Cameron made a great case in his speech to party conference for the morality of the economic areas that the government are pursuing. He pointed out that the reforms to the benefits system are about ensuring everyone plays their full part in the economy and on the same terms. A case needs to be made for all other areas of government policy also. The government is doing a great deal to ensure that our society is fairer and that the relationship between the governed and the government is transformed. These are incredibly important and a detailed case as to why they are so important for Conservative reasons will balance the message and give the Conservative Party an historic opportunity to define the political terms of trade in this generation.
Conservatives are leading the case to make marriage a fairer institution by allowing couples of the same gender to marry; just as the economic and benefit reforms are about ensuring fairness on an equal basis in the economy, then marriage policy is about ensuring fairness on an equal basis in society too. Conservatives believe that people coming together and sticking together is what binds a society together, and expanding marriage will strengthen society. Surely if people feel, or are in fact, excluded from the full life of a nation they may well make decisions that reduce their involvement in the economy of the nation too, in the same way that Conservatives have always understood that economic exclusion through lack of work also leads to exclusion from full participation in society. The case needs to be made that reforms to retune our economy and reforms to retune our society are not mutually exclusive. A fair society where everyone is included can strengthen the economy in the same way that a fair economy will strengthen society.
There are other areas of policy that need to be explained better as well. The government’s efforts to rebalance the relationship between the state and the citizen for instance are crucial. The localism agenda, the Big Society are all about ensuring that the state is an agent of its citizens and that citizens are not agents of the state. Conservatism is a philosophy of individual effort where possible, intervention where there is a genuine need. As the Prime Minister puts it “those who can should, those who can’t will be helped”. The reforms the government are putting in place are about ensuring that the government can facilitate activist citizens and not that citizens facilitate activist government. So Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected shortly to ensure that people can influence the fight against crime more directly. Education policy is being opened up to enable parents to more directly influence the types of education available to their children through Free Schools. This ceding of control to active informed citizens is essential in an era where the internet gives the opportunity for vast personal control and choice, from the ability to manage our personal finances quickly to being able to watch the television programs we want at a time that we choose. Tying the Conservative agenda to wider developments like this would be readily understood and would forever change the terms of political trade.
It is not just in these areas that the government is pursuing this agenda of rebalancing between state and individual. Reforms to ensure that government spending is published in an itemised way so that citizens can ensure that their money spent on their behalf is spent wisely. The decision to give every citizen a breakdown of where the tax that they pay goes so that everyone can see what is being spent and where. This arming of citizens with information is essential to ensuring that they are in a position to step up. There are many more examples; one final one I would point out is the early decision to scrap the identity card system an early signpost that this government was in the business of serving and not controlling its citizenry. This again feeds back into the revolution in information that is ongoing with ever more advances in technology.
The next election could be a watershed election in many ways; if the Conservative Party enters that election simply as the balanced economy party it will be selling itself, its supporters and the country short. If it enters the election with a more rounded message as the balanced economy party, the balanced society party and the party of a proper balance between government and governed it could have a serious shot at transforming the entire terms of political debate in this country as well retaining power. The policies are in place, the arguments are there to be made and the Conservatives can be in prime position to do what it has done many times in the past which is to shape the ground on which the battle of ideas is fought.