I was listening to a discussion between some Conservative MPs and a commentator today, and it struck me that what is going on in the Tory party at the moment is very much linked to the need for a little bit of “let sunshine rule the day” optimism. I am absolutely one of the 7 per centers (as found in ConHome’s survey of some party members last week) but there are some fundamental things that need to change for that to happen. It is not enough to assume that the economy will be going great guns from next year, nor that Ed Miliband is too weird for people to vote in as Prime Minister. Both those things are to be hoped for, of course, but there are also things we can do that will increase our chances next time, as well as making Britain a better place to live in the meantime.
As you’ll hopefully know, I think this government is doing some great work, but I think that they don’t explain what they’re doing or why it’s worth it nearly enough. So people – MPs, members and voters – feel left out and excluded and get grumpy because of that. And because they’re grumpy, they complain. Or they make suggestions – and, really, with a few exceptions, I reckon most of the complainers actually do think they’re being helpful. Or they do their own thing – which may or may not be right, but because it’s just them, it’s diluted and polluted with other messages and doesn’t hang together with anything else that people hear.
So there’s all this desire for success and participation on the one hand, and on the other the hard work of governing and deciding, and so often what seems like the demeaning work of explaining it all falls by the wayside because, obviously, it should be clear what the strategy is and what’s happening and why, and if people can’t see it, it’s because they’re being difficult rather than what is really happening, which is that because there is no fulcrum of political narrative, with no-one taking charge of messaging and delivery mechanisms, no-one knows what’s going on.
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: so much of what we hear is gloomy, which just depresses people and makes things a little bit worse every time you hear anything. The Tories need to make a positive case for the things they’re doing, and build people’s confidence in their and our capacity to make a difference to their own lives.
I’ve said it before but no-one has done anything about it: one of the most important things that CCHQ needs to do is stop sending out gloomy, ‘Labour are dreadful’ press releases, and send some out that say “Conservatives are great”. They need to hand people easy, campaignable snippets of the good things that are being done – in all areas, not just the Tory Big Three. Every week, there should be, at the very least, an email out to all party members with the things the government has delivered (note, delivered, not just announced) that are good. And they should engage with people wherever they are – visibly, innovatively, and consistently.
I’ve also said this before but it, too, is worth saying again and expanding on: there are loads of interesting, innovative and campaignable ideas coming from most of the various backbench groups. There are lots of things that the party and No10 could take up and engage with and deliver in government – yet so often, the ideas are ignored. I’m not saying that every single idea is worth using but there are so many of them, I can’t imagine they’re all nonsense. The Lib Dems have a system of party spokesmen for each government department outwith their ministers – should we perhaps consider doing the same?
The only real way (though it won’t be complete, because some people will never be happy) to fix the general sense of defeatism and complaining is to win – though of course, in order to win, we need to be competent, united, delivering and confident in our ideas and what we want to achieve. The centre-right needs to be, and be seen to be, on people’s side – and the only way we can do that is to understand how very, very different most people’s lives are to the ones we live in SW1. The cost of living is the big one, but the feeling of being let down by politicians, and undermined by vested interests outside their control is hugely unsettling for people.
When David Cameron was first elected party leader, and for the first couple of years, he was optimistic about people, about possibility, about potential. He was all about being the people’s champion, taking on vested interests, exhortation to make the right choices, treating people like adults and making a complicated case. I don’t think that has gone away completely but somehow it’s been muffled. We need to get back to that because if all the centre-right offers is gloom and pain, why would anyone bother voting for us?