The modernisation of the Conservative Party is not complete

We must not appear uncomfortable with multicultural Britain.

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of the Spectator, has responded on the magazine's Coffee House blog, arguing that Damian’s analysis is about ten years out of date.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.

David Cameron delivers his keynote speech to delegates at last year's Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Barwell is Conservative MP for Croydon Central.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change