Seven questions the Conservative Party needs to answer

We need to focus on the challenges and implement solutions regardless of how uncomfortable it is for our establishment elite.

In a New Statesman article in April, Tony Blair raised hackles by accusing the Labour Party of settling "back into its old territory of defending the status quo". He said: "The risk…is that the country returns to a familiar left/right battle’ and ‘in the 21st century such a contest debilitates rather than advances the nation". He also asked a number of questions which the Labour Party needs to answer.

The surprising thing about his piece was how much of it I actually agreed with. When the going gets tough, all political parties have a tendency to retreat behind the old clichés; to hide behind the standard lines; avoid facing reality and avoid making the impartial decisions necessary for the good of the country and everyone in it. Playing politics – scoring points - seems almost more important than delivering real results. 

But why is this? It hasn’t always been the case. Over the last month, the policies and actions of Baroness Thatcher have been reassessed. I was struck again by how politically neutral many of her decisions really were – and, consequently, how unpopular they were with the old establishment within the Conservative Party. She was not a popular figure with the Tory grandees. Lady Thatcher looked at a problem and implemented a workable solution. She took actions for the benefit of the many – not just the elite few.          

Like Tony Blair, I think there are questions the Conservative Party needs to ask in a balanced way without fearing the reaction within the party – or the country. We need to focus on the challenges and implement solutions irrespective of whether they fall towards the left or the right – regardless of whose toes we tread on or how uncomfortable it is for our establishment elite.

1.      How can the party ensure the Conservative message reaches both traditional and newly diverse working-class voters?

The working class is changing - and we need to react. According to a recent BBC survey, the new working classes are more culturally, socially and economically diverse than ever before. We must reconnect with the underlying drivers and common interests which unite people by getting our message across that we can provide opportunities to improve your lot in life no matter where you live, your circumstances or heritage. There are plenty of working-class Conservative MPs these days. I, for one, know what it’s like to be poor and to pull yourself up through hard work. But the party has fallen foul of the charges of posh boys and, to an extent, it does seem to many that we are 'out of touch'. We need to get out there and reconnect with everyone, not just the people in the middle and at the top of the income scale – just because we see them as our core voters. I believe we should be focusing our attention on the areas outside the affluent south east, getting some perspective.

2.      How can we unleash the power of entrepreneurship and enterprise, and help businesses grow?

This is a vital question because healthy, growing businesses stimulate the economy and help reduce the cost of living through competition, increased job opportunities and rising wages. Therefore we need to advocate and implement bold measures to encourage growth. We have done good work by, for example, reducing corporation tax but it’s just not enough. We need to start taking calculated risks – cutting taxes for businesses and working people and putting more money back in their pockets. I want to see an enterprising nation with flexible employment: low tax that’s simple to administrate, and a climate where it’s easy to start a business from your living room – and continues to be easy when you start to grow. I want to see businesses compete for employees, with improving terms and conditions without the need for major legislation.

3.      How can we become the party of social mobility once more?

According to the London School of Economics report Recent Changes in Intergenerational Mobility in Britain, ‘the UK remains low in the international rankings of social mobility when compared with other advanced nations’. This is not a situation we can sit back and accept. Lady Thatcher’s legacy will be largely one of implementing policies that enabled social mobility, of encouraging people to get out there and improve their own lives. But what’s happened since? Not much really. The working-class young people of the ‘70s and ‘80s make up today’s middle classes. But there’s a new generation that needs hope and our help right now – and there are the people who got left behind in the intervening years. In an era where classrooms without walls are a reality, where new forms of online learning at a pace and a place of your choosing can make lifelong learning accessible to all, we need to do more to encourage self-progression, re-skilling, and the creation of new and dynamic ways of learning. We need to create policies that make it easy for people to build businesses - even in their spare time, not keep putting barriers in their way and increasing red tape. We need to find ways to put power back in the hands of working people; to give them the tools they need to build their own futures. I want to see a government working to unite people and agree the way forward through consensus; one that avoids needless confrontation and creates the environment necessary to build a hopeful country at ease with itself.

4.      How can the government return power from faceless bureaucrats in Brussels to the British people and create a sense of national self-confidence and control?

This is the biggest issue we face both politically and economically. If Britain is going to grow and prosper we must stop being governed by Europe. We must find a way to get out of the EU clutches and wrest back the powers we need to start building a country of opportunity for all. We need to face the fact that a very sizable part of the country does not want to remain in the EU and if we are to win a majority at the next election we need to put the legislation for an in-out referendum in place within this Parliament. We cannot leave this issue just hanging around. The uncertainty must be removed and a sense of economic and political stability restored so that Britain stands self-confident once again.

5.      How does the party address immigration sensibly without ‘lurching to the right’?

I don’t think we’re moving to the right – but I do worry that as the election approaches it could become an easy way out for the party. People are genuinely worried about immigration, both from the EU and from further afield. The government has done good work in reducing the overall level, but it’s still far too high and the rate of change is still too fast for people to feel comfortable.  By rationing UK citizenship in a fairer way, and severing the link between work visas and citizenship, we can have an integrated and fully functioning society with a bright future. And healthy integration can only be achieved if we have tougher demands on who is actually allowed into our country – both in terms of entitlements to benefits and health services. Our immigration policy must go hand in hand with our economic policy. Only by fixing our broken immigration system can we resolve our financial difficulties.

6.      How do we adequately deal with our aging population?

Currently, 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old and by 2050 this figure will have risen to 19 million – and of course people are living longer and are healthier in retirement than ever before. It is absolutely imperative for the country that we ensure individuals can support themselves in old age. We must find way to make it easy for people to save for their retirement and avoid perpetuating a dependency culture. I believe we need to move away from state reliance back to forms of self-reliance. I concede this will be painful, but we must begin shaping the arguments, developing the policies and preparing the people for the repatriation of financial responsibilities right now so that our children are not left with the problem we chose to ignore.

7.      How can the party embrace the emerging digital world to transfer power from the state to create bigger citizens?

We need to consider how best to use web applications to deliver more public services and give the public back control of government-held personal data such as NHS records. Public sector hierarchies and bureaucracy may well have been necessary in a paper-based world, but the digital world is different. It can be used to slim down burdensome government public services and eliminate administrative middlemen – and turn the government into an ‘on-demand resource’ – where citizens have complete control of their contact with the government rather than have services imposed on them from above. I also believe there is scope to use the price-comparison website model for public services; as Sean Worth, David Cameron’s former special adviser puts it: "Online comparison sites should be contracted by the government to produce simple league tables to allow people to compare the performance of local hospitals, GPs and care homes." This could be cross-sector, i.e. public, private and philanthropic, and allow for location-sensitive data collection.

Only by asking these questions – without fear - and developing workable solutions can we, as a party, move forward and create a Britain full of hope and optimism. I’ve said it before, but I firmly believe that we need a new kind of politics with a greater degree of courage, self-analysis and straight talking. We have to face the fact that many people feel we’ve let them down. We need to restore people’s faith in the Conservative Party and show people that we will do what we say. We need to be clear about what we are going to do, without equivocation. Only then can we rebuild Britain for the benefit of all.

Adam Afriyie is the Conservative MP for Windsor

A Conservative Party flag flies during the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. Photograph: Getty Images.

Adam Afriyie is the Conservative MP for Windsor

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle