One thing that even his most ardent critics acknowledge about the Prime Minister is that his leadership has renewed the Conservative Party and modernised its approach to equality. As opposition leader, he supported Labour’s equalities measures, while successfully encouraging the selection of more female, gay, and minority ethnic candidates.
Cameron is the most prominent politician supporting gay marriage in this country; it was his intervention in the process leading up to the consultation on gay marriage that changed the wording of the question from “whether” we equalise marriage in this country, to “when”. He, William Hague and his international aid ministers are vocal advocates of using international aid as a tool of intervention to prevent nations criminalising and even slaughtering their gay citizens. It is a Conservative Prime Minister who is leading the fight for gay rights in this country and in others.
On women, The Tories support policies that provide tax relief for childcare. Cameron supports in principle the proposal of quotas in the boardroom. We’re seeing more support for families in the form of trouble-shooting workers for the most troubled 100,000 families, and helping single parents get back to work.
The party is making good progress on matters of equality and social issues, though it needs to make more progress with minority ethnic voters, of whom only 16% voted Conservative in 2010.
As necessary as renewal and modernisation was, worsening conditions made it difficult to focus on economic measures; rather, the financial crisis and its aftermath became the core issue in UK politics. Messages about inheritance tax cuts, a policy popular before the financial crisis, were easily manipulated by the Labour Party. In the safety of high opinion poll ratings – and because it was necessary to be honest with the electorate – the party began to talk of rising state pension ages, and of austerity. The perhaps even more necessary element of detoxification was never completed, which is one of the reasons why focus groups and polling suggest the Tories are “out-of-touch” and favour the privileged.
Polling tells us that the marginal seats of the Midlands and the North – many of which we failed to win at the last election – are on side with the party on important issues like immigration and education but many voters who say they would never vote Tory say so because they think that the party doesn’t care about them. We need those seats, and yet more, to win a majority in 2015.
I believe that we aren’t explaining ourselves to voters properly. The reasons for the 45p tax change were not adequately outlined. Without efforts to counter the damaging effects that had on the party’s image, demonstrated by performance in the polls, and without explaining why policies are compassionate and for the benefit of the many, the party will lose the next election.
We have seen some effort to counter this: the Prime Minister delivered a speech at October’s party conference that could be described as putting forward the moral case for conservatism, and Osborne indicated that he will create policies for “the strivers”. The rhetoric was inspiring, and we’ve seen the return of the Right to Buy and more help for first-time buyers in supported mortgages. But this Government’s policy to increase the personal allowance to £10,000 is – regrettably – a Liberal Democrat policy. Income tax levels in the UK were far too high under Labour, and they will be even when the allowance is raised to £10,000.
Raising taxes on the poorest and those on middle incomes is something that the Labour Party are forgiven for by the electorate, because they’re convinced it’s done for compassionate, and not ideological, reasons.
We Tories know that we’re the party of aspiration, of those who want a better life for themselves and their families. It’s great that we’re helping people to buy their own or first homes, that we’re reforming welfare and universal credit so that ensures work always pays, that we’re reducing red tape so that people can work for themselves without being strangled by regulation, that we’re investing more in health and busting open the monopoly on education. But that isn’t enough.
The party needs to complete modernisation beyond just equality, and the leadership’s success at changing public perception on matters of equality is, in my view, replicable when it comes to convincing people of the case for compassionate, enabling conservatism in the run up to the next general election. We need to continue to explain the moral case for our policies, and we need to build on what we’ve achieved in getting on the side of those people who do the right thing.
It is quite possible for us to win a majority in 2015 if we can convince aspirational people that we care about their hopes and dreams, just like Margaret Thatcher did. With the help of the likes of the Blue Collar Conservatism group , this can be achieved through both message and policy. Perhaps a good starting point would be a pledge for further reductions in income tax for those striving for a better standard of living.