Vernon Bogdanor

The Tories need a genuine liberal

Vernon Bogdanor says that David Cameron is the only Conservative who can read the nation’s mood and respond to it

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Vernon Bogdanor says that David Cameron is the only Conservative who can read the nation’s mood and respond to it

In the 1960s Harold Wilson sought to make Labour the natural party of government. Tony Blair seems to have succeeded in doing so. The Conservatives have now been in opposition for eight years, their longest period out of government since the days of Asquith and Lloyd George before 1914. Never before, during the period of mass suffrage, have they lost three consecutive general elections. Moreover, at no stage since 1997 have they appeared credible as a potential party of government. That is bad, not only for the Conservatives but also for the country. Governments, under our constitution, even though elected on a minority of the popular vote, enjoy almost untrammelled power. Without an effective opposition, that power will not be properly scrutinised.

Labour, too, was out of office for a whole political era, from 1979 to 1997. But, after eight years in opposition, it had already begun, however hesitantly, the process of modernisation under Neil Kinnock, the bridge between Old and New Labour. Moreover Labour was ahead in the opinion polls for much of the period between general elections. The Conservatives, by contrast, have been behind Labour in the opinion polls for most of the past eight years. Indeed, never since Gallup first began polling in Britain in 1937 has one party — Labour — held a lead for so long a period — since 1992 — for most of which it has been in government. The Conservatives have not even begun the process of modernisation. Instead, they seem to be engaged in a permanent quarrel with the British people. In that quarrel there can be only one victor, and it will not be the Conservative party.

To understand the Tory problem, we have to go back to 1992 when John Major’s government was forced to depart, permanently as it turned out, from the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system. The fall-out from that event — recession, bankruptcies and negative equity — destroyed the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence, a crucial part of the party’s appeal during its years of success in the 1950s and the 1980s. At the same time, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were getting rid of the detritus of Old Labour, beginning with Clause 4, and fashioning a new economic policy which did not depend upon co-operation from the trade unions, and which offered prudent stewardship. One of Tony Blair’s main accomplishments has been to persuade voters that Labour has become an effective manager of the economy. It is now, paradoxically, Labour which is seen as the party of sound economic management, while the Tories are regarded as a party which could put the economy at risk. ‘The Tories,’ Tony Blair said during the recent election campaign, ‘used to run on the economy. Now they just run away from it.’

But the Tory crisis is not one of policy only. It is also a crisis of identity. They have lost support both among graduates and among the young. Such support as they have gained since 1997 has come mainly from the over-65s and from the geographically and socially immobile. Significantly, the three seats which the Conservatives gained in 2001 — Castle Point, Romford and Upminster — contained a lower than average percentage of graduates and members of ethnic minorities, and a higher than average percentage of older votes. In 2001 there were actually swings away from the Tories from their already low 1997 level among the professional and managerial classes, 25–34-year-olds and the ethnic minorities. The 2005 election, although it led to a few more Tory gains, did little to reverse these trends; and among university students the Conservatives are now the third party, behind even the Liberal Democrats. The party has actually lost ground since 1997 in constituencies where the proportion of university graduates is above average. It is a myth, therefore, to believe that the Conservatives can regain power simply by mobilising their existing voting base. The current Tory voting profile is that of an unelectable party.

The response of the last three Tory leaders — William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard — to these trends has been, after making a few conciliatory noises, to seek to rouse the core vote by highlighting the so-called ‘dog-whistle’ issues such as Europe in 2001 and immigration in 2005. They were encouraged in this strategy by survey evidence which seemed to show that such issues were priorities for many voters. Yet Conservatives in touch with the real needs and fears of voters would have appreciated that, whatever they might tell the pollsters, their crucial concerns remained the concrete issues which affect their everyday lives — the effects of economic change and the quality of the public services. No doubt many voters might, in the saloon bar, sound off on Europe or asylum-seekers, but they have enough sense to regard any political leader who mistakes saloon-bar musings for policy as weird and out of touch. The core vote strategy, therefore, can do little more than energise an increasingly ageing and unrepresentative group of old faithfuls. It cannot serve as a springboard for revival.

David Frum, the former speechwriter to President Bush, once said, ‘When a political party offers the voters ham and eggs and the voters say, “No, thanks”, its first instinct is to say, “OK then — how about double ham and double eggs?”.’ If the country is to have a credible opposition, the Conservatives need to stop talking to themselves and begin, instead, to re-engage with the real needs of voters. The candidates in the leadership contest ought to be evaluated against this single criterion. Which of them has best understood the nature of the Tory dilemma and is able to reach out to those voters whom the Tories have lost over the past 13 years? Of the various contenders, only David Cameron has perceived the need for really fresh thinking. Unburdened by old luggage, he seeks genuinely to understand why the Conservatives are unpopular and how this unpopularity is to be remedied.

The first step in a Tory recovery must be to develop a credible economic alternative to Gordon Brown, one which reflects traditional Tory attitudes of scepticism towards the state. Yet as Cameron insists voters do not want to be compelled to choose between a good economy and strong public services, and they will resent the Conservatives if the party asks them to do so. The Conservatives, therefore, must not appear to question the safety net of social welfare which alone makes the pressures of globalisation tolerable. For globalisation inevitably involves an increase in uncertainty and risk — some businesses will succeed while others will become bankrupt, new jobs will be created while existing jobs will be lost. Voters will accept these uncertainties only if they are combined with strong welfare policies so that they will not lose everything when markets move.

Within that framework, however, it would be natural for the Tories to be sceptical of Labour’s claim that massive increases in public expenditure can rescue a health service established nearly 60 years ago in a Britain of queues and rationing in which the public was grateful for whatever it could get. They might be sceptical as to whether a top-down organisation, run on managerial principles and employing more than a million people, can meet the individual needs of today’s increasingly sophisticated and demanding patients. It would be natural for the Tories also to be sceptical as to whether detailed governmental interference with schools, and even with school lunches, will succeed in raising educational standards. Conservatives might ask themselves whether market principles, the principles of economic liberalism which served the Thatcher and Major governments so well, might not now be employed to improve the public services.

David Cameron now believes that the Conservatives were wrong to oppose Labour’s proposals for top-up fees for university students. It would be natural for the Conservatives to feel that the degree of government intervention associated with subsidising university students has become unacceptable, and that universities which were more independent of the state would be better placed to ensure that access is based on genuine academic merit, and that university admissions become, to adapt the term used at Harvard, ‘need-blind’. One of the enduring lessons of the post-war era, after all, is that the state does not run industry very effectively. Conservatives might feel that it does not run welfare services very effectively either.

More than this is needed, though, if the Tories are to overcome their identity crisis. They have to come to terms with Britain as it is today rather than the Britain of the 1950s, a Britain seen through rose-tinted spectacles, a Britain which was ethnically homogenous, in which deference was strong and alternative lifestyles barely tolerated. The social groups whose votes the Conservatives need to win if they return to power — professionals and university graduates — will not support a party which seeks to tell them how to live their lives. Politicians are the last people from whom most voters will accept moral sermons. If people want morality, Harold Macmillan once said, they should seek it from their archbishop.

However successfully they rethink their policy, perhaps the best that the Conservatives can reasonably hope for from the next election is a hung parliament. In the past, they have generally allied with Labour. There is, however, no reason that they should not help to sustain a Conservative government committed to civil liberties and economic liberalism, provided that it has abated its hostility to Europe, and provided that the Conservatives agree to test opinion on electoral reform by means of a referendum. That, too, David Cameron understands. With his genuinely liberal instincts, he is better placed than any of the other candidates to bring the Conservatives back to power in a hung parliament.

Perhaps the weakest argument against Cameron is that he is too young. In 1952 Winston Churchill was entering the House of Commons when he heard a young Tory backbencher tearing into Labour’s guru, Aneurin Bevan. ‘Who is that?’ Churchill asked the chief whip. ‘Iain Macleod, sir.’ ‘We must have him in the government,’ said Churchill. ‘I am afraid that he is too young to be eligible,’ was the chief whip’s reply. ‘On the contrary’, Churchill retorted, ‘he is too eligible to be too young.’ Macleod was 38, one year younger than David Cameron. What was good enough for Churchill should surely suffice for the Tories in their current beleaguered state.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University and was David Cameron’s tutor. He is not a member of the Conservative party.