Thursday, December 03, 2009

Tickling the Hard Underbelly of the Tories

Last week I was speaking at the Harpenden Branch AGM. They had given me 25-30 minutes (brave souls!) to talk about the current political landscape. I outlined my personal take on where all the "main" political parties are - noting that during the expenses scandal the media started chatting about the "3" main parties!

My starting point, it has to be said, is values. If you understand someone's values you are more likely to be able to predict how they will behave in any given circumstance. I often quote my old pal Raj Lehal - who would say "we need to be tight on values, then we can be loose on everything else, but all too often we are tight on everything else and loose on values". And it seems to me this is one of the dilemmas that plagues politics at the moment. When power at all costs becomes the driving force, values take a back seat aka Blair and now Cameron. The problem is, that the grassroots activists of most parties will likely be far more wedded to their values.

Blair brilliantly took advantage of the Labour movement's shared value of collective responsibility and was able to persuade his activists to suppress their values for the "greater good" - taking power (those who couldn't stomach this - and there were many of them - upt n left).

Cameron has clearly learned the lessons of Blair. To take power he has to persuade his party stalwarts to suppress their values - for "the greater good" of taking power. The problem he has, it seems to me, is the nature of the values so many grass roots Tories share. No collective responsibility for the Tories, oh no - these are the spawn of "there is no such thing as society" approach let's not forget.

Now I have to say I have been surprised and delighted to hear what some senior Tories are saying, for example on a more liberal approach to youth justice, (articulated again today by David Burrowes at a conference I attended) but I wonder if these proposed policies will ever see the light of day. And of course there are other senior Tories who are already beginning to attack their leader on what they see as thoroughly unconservative approaches to, for example, climate change (more about this later).

A couple of years ago I attended my first Tory party conference. It was one of those moments......(what's the opposite to an epiphany?), when all your prejudices are confirmed. Despite the sheep's clothing it was clear, at every fringe I attended, that the grass roots were still largely nasty party wolves.

This year it was no different - my only claim to fame was having a question I asked at the World at One debate broadcast on the programme (I guess I just have to do the same at the Labour Party conference to get a full house - or would it be a hat trick?). They were debating cuts and were getting on my my question was about willy waiving (never imagined Radio 4 would broadcast that!) and how much was going on in relation to cuts - what - I wanted to know, would the panelists cut and why? Martha K bless her pushed the point with Louise Bagshaw who ended up confessing that she would have to cut rural bus services. I also ran into our erstwhile presidential candidate, Mr Fernandez, who is now an approved Tory candidate. He, you may remember, answered my question - if there was one thing about this country you would change, what would it be? - by saying he would abolish inheritance tax - why was he ever in our party in the first place????! But - let's not forget, for a long time, this was the only declared Tory policy there was.

So, make no mistake - when it comes to the point of actually having to put mouths where money is - the Tories will struggle. Not only the activists, or even the is likely the frontbenchers who will publicly air their differences. Dave says he is a liberal, and who am I to doubt?

When I arrived at that Tory conference two years ago Brown was riding high. We were anticipating a snap election. The Tories were up for dumping Cameron. But then Brown screwed up - in Iraq - over the election - and Cameron found himself suddenly the darling of his party. The man they really didn't like suddenly became far more attractive.

So, they have had a season of success - but will it last? The fissures are already beginning to appear and some of them are fairly deep. Look at what happened in Bedford, in Norfolk. There is no doubt there is a hard underbelly of true conservatism - the leadership have done well to more or less suppress it for so long - my contention is that all we needed to do is tickle it over the next few months - and we may provoke them to display their true colours. That is our challenge - at a local and national level. Now surely is the time for Nick Clegg to change the focus of his fire. The weeds whose roots have already died can be left to expire of their own accord - the attack has to be on the new and vigorous growth - even at PMQ's. We have the best opportunity for a generation - how we play this could be the difference between heralding an era of real change and progress, or a return to the dark days of reactionary conservatism.

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