As published in the Mail on Sunday:
The threat from UKIP is no longer a laughing matter. Get serious, Dave… only lower taxes will win the Election
As the Conservative Party conference opens today, all thoughts will be on how we can win the General Election next May. In the four Elections between 1979 and 1992, we won about 43 per cent of the vote. In 1992 we won more than 14 million votes – more than Tony Blair in 1997.
Yet in 2010, despite the economic upheaval and Labour being led by Gordon Brown, the worst Prime Minister for a generation, we somehow failed to win a majority. The Conservatives won more than three million fewer votes than in 1992.
To put it at its kindest, the project to ‘modernise’ the party failed to deliver electoral success. At the same time, party membership collapsed from around 500,000 in 1992, to about 100,000 in 2010. In short, we’re not in as strong a position as we would hope. We’ve flatlined in the polls since the ‘omnishambles’ Budget of 2012 at around 32 per cent, despite the economy recovering strongly.
The defection to Ukip of Douglas Carswell and now Mark Reckless, all brings into sharper focus the need to look at our main strategy. When it becomes the leading joke of the day on Twitter, that ‘To lose one MP is careless, but to lose two is Reckless,’ perhaps it is time to realise the threat from Ukip is no longer a laughing matter. We have to recognise the problem, think out the answer, and act on it.
The reason is simple: the strategy has been wrong because the analysis of the problem was wrong. This is not to say the Conservatives did not need to change. But to heal a sickness, you need the correct diagnosis and the correct remedy.
Trying to modernise the party without knowing why it needed to be modernised was like trying to fix a broken leg with radiotherapy. You may end up doing more harm than good.
Essentially, the modernisers absorbed the view of London’s metropolitan elite, which confuses social conservatism with bigotry, patriotism with xenophobia, or even racism, and equates an admiration for wealth creation with disdain for the poor and even carelessness about the future of the planet. Nonsensical views, but remarkably common in the upper reaches of parts of London society.
Cameron promises we WILL get in-or-out vote on Europe by 2017
It reached its apogee with Theresa May calling the Tories ‘the Nasty Party’. This appalling calumny is best demonstrated by an abiding memory of mine.
Some years ago, at a Tory Party conference, a speaker asked the audience to ‘put up their hand’ if they helped Oxfam, or Save the Children, or the RSPCA, or volunteered for Meals on Wheels, or were a prison visitor, or organised the church fete.
In moments the hall was a sea of hands, as it became apparent that ordinary Tory Party members were the very sinews that knitted British society together. The ‘Selfless Party’ would have been a better description.
It is not to say the Conservatives did not have a problem.
Their image was tarnished by Black Wednesday in 1992 when sterling crashed out of the ERM. And the ‘cash for questions’ exposés and occasional sex scandal gave the Conservative brand an unpleasant whiff of hypocrisy and corruption.
This was what cost the party a third of its support. It was not, as many modernisers believed, about bigotry, or homophobia, or even racism.
And yet this lazy, liberal, metropolitan analysis underpinned the moderniser approach. As the basis for abandoning the central tenets of the most successful political party in modern history, the analysis was rubbish.
By shifting the Conservative brand away from its historic base, the party abandoned traditional Conservative principles and made ourselves less appealing to those who supported us.
Headline policies have downplayed the economy and reform of public services, and concentrated on fringe issues like environmentalism, gay marriage and foreign aid. Very few of these are in voters’ top five concerns.
The party leadership is seen as considerably more Left-wing than its support. Middle England regards modernisation as the obsession of a metropolitan elite.
The most significant consequence to the Conservatives’ confused and inconsistent public stance is that Ukip are polling at slightly over 15 per cent. If they get over five per cent at the next General Election, it dramatically increases the likelihood Ed Miliband will be the next Prime Minister.
With only seven months until polling day, the party has little time to alter course and achieve the popular support we once enjoyed. We must present a coherent set of policies attractive to the wider Conservative family, including those who have ceased voting and those considering voting for Ukip. We must give strong solutions to the most important issues: the economy, immigration, employment and housing.
We have made progress towards addressing the appalling economic situation we inherited in 2010. Growth has returned, the deficit is returning to manageable levels and employment is up. But there is still work to be done. The proportion of Britons owning their homes has been falling for over a decade. Wage rates are stagnant and undermined by inflation. Household debt is at record levels. The aspirational classes on which the party has traditionally relied are crumbling.
We must continue to reduce the tax burden and end the absurd situation where money is taken from people’s pay only to be given back in benefits and tax credits. We should raise the National Insurance threshold in line with income tax to reduce the tax burden on the low paid. We should get rid of employers’ National Insurance contributions and reject Labour calls to raise the top-rate of income tax.
We must help the struggling middle classes with a rise in the threshold for the 40p tax rate. Too many pay what was meant to be a rate for the very rich.
When George Osborne said in 2007 he would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million, a six-point poll deficit turned into a three-point lead. When David Cameron was seen to stand up to Europe over the election of Jean-Claude Juncker he went up five points in the polls. Such popularity is not easily explained by the traditional moderniser analysis, where Europe is a taboo subject.
This is not about giving in to Ukip. This is about refocusing back to core values, and promoting policies to help those who support us. We must reach out to the wider Conservative family – a family that has returned Conservative governments for most of the last 200 years.
Only then can we put ourselves in the best position to win next May, and regain the trust of those who voted Conservative in 1992.