The Conservatives have a problem. People perceive us to be the party of the rich. A recent YouGov poll for Conservative Home found that 50% of people believe that the Conservatives only appeal to one section of society rather than the whole country. Only 17% believe that the Conservatives have succeeded in moving on and leaving the past behind. Considering that the Conservatives were perceived to be the “nasty party”, and regularly struggled to get anything more than a third of votes cast in general elections, this must worry CCHQ. Especially as at the General Election in 2010 37% believed the Conservatives had changed. At the time this statistic was disheartening, today such a response is the promise land. None of this matters so much if people mark you out as being a good leader. In the 80s people would rather have had Neil Kinnock round for a cup of tea, but they preferred Margaret Thatcher to be sitting next to the red button. But only 18% of people believe the Conservatives are led by people of real ability. To quote the Labour blogger Hopi Sen, who is conducting an elegantly study of the Conservative Modernisation project: “Polls show Toxic Tories are back? People thinking you’re a bit of a b****rd isn’t always a problem, but being a useless b****rd always is”.
What do the Conservatives need to do to appeal to the centre ground? When talking about the centre ground we need to define the concept. For me the centre ground has nothing to do with class, wealth, education or locality. These quantifiable classifications appeal to intelligent pollsters because they allow us to micro-compartmentalise the public. The centre ground is inhabited by those people who are not knowingly affiliated to a particular political ideology. The majority. As New York Times columnist David Brooks says: “The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most. Tax cuts might be right one decade but wrong the next. Tighter regulations might be right one decade, but if sclerosis sets in then deregulation might be in order.” David Cameron and Co have yet to convince enough of the public that they can identify the problems, then discover and implement the solutions.
The Modernisation project was about two related, but not always compatible, strands. First, the Conservatives needed to talk about what people cared about, rather than what they believed people should care about. Second, a Conservative government would strive to make the UK fit for purpose for the 21st Century. On both counts progress has been made, but neither goal has been fully understood by the leadership or fully embraced by the Party. What is going to be done about the rising cost of living? How is the Government going to ensure competition in High Street banking? If Free Schools are such a good idea, how are more going to be facilitated? Why do small enterprises still complain about excessive red tape? The answers to these questions should be based in practical solutions, not ideological dogma. the ultimate question is: can Cameron convince us that he leads an outcomes focused regime, who get what our lives are about? His conference speech was a good start, but the words won’t mean anything unless people can see that they are translated into action.