Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph included an opinion piece from my colleague Damian Green arguing, among other things, that if the Conservative Party gives the impression that it doesn't like modern Britain, it is very unlikely that modern Britain will like it.
Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, has responded on the magazine's Coffee House blog, arguing that Damian’s analysis is about ten years out of date. Fraser is one of the most articulate and passionate champions of the Conservative cause, but he’s wrong about this on two counts.
First, he argues that the war has already been won. "The Tory Party has moved on" he says, pointing to some of the most impressive members of the 2010 intake. It is certainly true that the war within the Conservative Party has been largely won - most of my colleagues accept the need to appeal beyond the core Conservative vote, to talk about issues like the NHS, the environment and equality as well as more traditional Tory fare like tax, crime and immigration, though a few still don’t get it. But the real war always was and is external, not internal.
Take ethnic minority electors, a growing segment of the electorate: if Fraser really thinks that the war is won, he should take a look at the results of the Ethnic Minority British Election Study or Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling. I suspect that Fraser would reply that it is the imaginative policy thinking of some of my colleagues that will change attitudes among these voters, not vague talk of being comfortable with modern Britain. And to a degree, he would be right - but policy on its own isn’t the answer. Most voters don’t have a detailed knowledge of each party’s policies (they do however pick up on remarks that directly affect them - a surprising number of black and minority ethnic voters in my constituency know that the Prime Minister attacked multiculturalism in an otherwise excellent speech on security in Munich in February 2011) - they decide how to vote based on their perception of what each party stands for. And if you have a damaged brand it colours the perception of all your policies. Take the example Fraser gives: he argues that many people are concerned about immigration and are quite capable of separating this from concerns about race. He is absolutely right - black and minority voters in my constituency are just as concerned as everyone else about the level of immigration and the resulting pressure on public services. But if voters think a party is uncomfortable with multicultural Britain, they will draw conclusions about the motivation behind its immigration policy.
Fraser’s second error is to view modernising the Conservative Party as being about appealing to ethnic minority voters, the LGBT community and metropolitan liberals. To be fair to him, he’s not alone in having this view - and it’s hardly surprising that many people have that impression because these are the groups that the modernisers of the last 1990s/early 2000s tended to talk about. But you could equally talk about public sector workers, Fraser’s fellow Scots or those who live in the great cities of the north and the midlands.
The real war, then, is to change perceptions of the Conservative Party among millions of people whose values on issues like the family, reward for hard work, crime and Europe are Conservative but who do not think of themselves as Conservatives. More people tell pollsters that they would never vote Conservative than say they would never vote Labour. This is not something we should take pride in.
David Cameron won a battle in 2010, securing an additional two million Conservative votes, but the war has not been won - indeed, arguably, we have gone backwards since 2010, particularly among public sector workers because of the painful decisions we have had to take to deal with the financial mess we inherited. It must be won if we want to see a majority Conservative government.
Gavin Barwell is the Conservative MP for Croydon Central.