“I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it”: so David Cameron confidently declared at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. The Prime Minister spoke passionately about creating an “aspiration nation”, not for the better-off but for the “want-to-be-better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families.” This is an inspiring vision and a Conservative vision – and vision is important. Vision is the touchstone for policies that effect that real change in people’s lives.
A number of commentators – Iain Martin and Tim Montgomerie foremost among them – have for some time been advocating this re-orientation of Conservative Party policy ahead of 2015. They have consistently argued that we should put greater emphasis on the aspirant, be they the hard working family trying to provide a better future for their children, the entrepreneur trying to start their own business or the new graduate searching for their first job. This is a question of fairness, and fairness should be enough to motivate us. But, as David Cameron also noted, it is also essential to enable Britain to compete in a globalised economy. Amidst growing global competition for talent, investment and trade from the BRICs and the Next 11 group of fast-growth economies, Cameron rightly said “don’t let anyone tell you Britain can’t make it in this world – we’re the most enterprising, buccaneering, creative, dynamic nation on earth. “ And as this year’s Conference slogan “Britain can Deliver” confidently and rightly suggests, the British people can win in a changing world, but to do so we must realise the talents and ambitions of all our people. Nobody held back, but nobody left behind either.
So in order to build this dynamic nation, Cameron needs to implement an agenda we have both championed for a more socially mobile society: what we call the “Opportunity Society”. Because opportunity is what we must provide. A desire to create and spread opportunity must underpin everything the Party does. This is where vision must turn into policies, and amongst the measures a second term Cameron government could implement are:
- A Curriculum to Compete: Education is at the heart of opportunity at home, and winning the global race for success abroad. We need a Curriculum to Compete, with maths and a foreign language compulsory to 18 to ensure our children have the right tools to lead the world in science, medicine, engineering, technology and high-value manufacturing. We are delighted to see that Michael Gove has embraced similar changes with the new English Baccalaureate, and allowing Cambridge University dons to set the new maths exams is also a step in the right direction because a stronger relationship between schools and universities should be the hallmark of a future Conservative government. But it should also include Enterprise Education including financial skills. According to the financial education charity MyBnk, nearly half of 16 to 25 year olds name debt as their biggest fear and 1 in 20 teenagers believe that they do not have to pay back credit card debt. Yet financial education is still not compulsory in schools. We believe that this needs to change.
- Excellence for all not just the few: Moreover, we need to build on the free-schools revolution by opening up access to private schools so they are not just the preserve of the moneyed elite but open to all. One option, already available in some US states, would be to allow taxpayers (individual or corporate) to claim tax credits on contributions to educational scholarships for children from lower-income families. This would create a large pool of funds, available exclusively to disadvantaged children, which their parents could access to pay school fees. A similar tax credit could also made available for personal use, allowing parents to claim tax relief on school fees and transforming the affordability of and access to private education. This would be of particular help to, for example, children with special needs who would benefit from the facilities and expertise available in the independent sector.
- Strong families and communities: Community and the family must also play their part in any Conservative manifesto. A new Community Credit, making volunteering tax deductible for the individual, could help to create a new generation of volunteers spreading opportunity beyond the reach of the state. The 70,000 Olympic Gamesmakers who made London 2012 such a success are an inspiring example to us all of what can be achieved. Businesses and companies, large and small, must also play their part, and should be encouraged to convert meeting rooms (empty at the end of the working day) into homework clubs open to local school children, oases of quiet learning for those whose home lives are not conducive to study.
- Bridging the Digital Divide: This crucial to levelling the educational playing field. Children with internet access achieve, on average, two grades higher than those without and 90% of UK jobs now require some level of IT competency, whilst people in online households are also 25 percent more likely to find work. We need to ensure that all children have internet access at home and at school to support and compliment their classroom learning. Digitally excluded households lose in excess of £200 a year from not shopping and paying bills online, so bridging the digital divides not only improves learning and employment outcomes, it also helps family budgets
- Neighbourhoods and Nations: We support Dr Stephen Brien’s idea that we should treat poor neighbourhoods like we do poor nations, with radical cuts to taxation and business regulation in these areas and real incentives for investment both internally (i.e. from the local community) and externally. This could be coupled with the introduction of micro-finance initiatives to help kick-start local business ventures and give more people a real stake in their community. The Conservative Kiva Group, which has already helped poor communities overseas, are well places to share their expertise when tackling poverty with wealth creation at home.
The idea of an Opportunity Society is popular with the British public too because inter-generational fairness and social mobility resonates with voters. It goes to the heart of what most people want from life and it wins elections amongst a key group of voters: the aspirational, striving workers on middle and modest incomes. According to Ipsos-MORI, at the 2010 general election, Conservatives secured 39% of the C1 (lower middle class) against 28% for Labour, and 37% of the C2 (skilled workers) vote to Labour’s 29%. Multi-election winners Margaret Thatcher (and Tony Blair) scored highly amongst C1s and C2s, usually breaking the 40% barrier. So, come 2015, the task for the Conservatives will be once again to act as the voice of strivers. The early polling is already promising: last week the Spectator’s James Forsyth reported that CCHQ’s survey of 2,000 voters showed support for the aspiration agenda, and that it appealed across the board: “not just to Basildon white van man but also to women worried about their children’s future“. Many Conservatives are now starting to take action too. Last week, 63 Conservative MPs from across the Party launched Blue Collar Conservatives, a new initiative to attract the strivers that have traditionally formed the mainstay of our election victories.
These policy ideas are not a panacea. This is very much the start of a journey in policy making as we head towards the next election inspired by the simple, Conservative belief in equal opportunity for all. Everyone must do their fair share for their community – but everyone must get a fair shot in life too. We are delighted that the Party leadership has embraced our agenda for an Opportunity Society. Now it needs policies, as well as the language to communicate them to the electorate. This should be at the heart of the Conservative’s bid for re-election; we cannot afford for it for it not to be, as we build a stronger society at home, and compete abroad. Only by building an Opportunity Society can we turn the vision of an Aspiration Nation into a vote-winning reality.
Alan Mak is Chairman of Conservative Fastrack and President & Trustee of Magic Breakfast. Simon Maynard is a Conservative councillor in the London Borough of Enfield and Director of Events for Conservative Fastrack.