The Tories that Cameron and Osborne need to listen to

Conservative group Renewal's pledge card calls for an increase in the minimum wage, the building of one million homes, free party membership for trade unionists and action against "rip-off companies".

Free party membership for trade unionists, the building of one million homes over the next parliament, an increase in the minimum wage, a "cost-of-living test" for every policy, a cut in fuel duty and a cabinet minister to "take action for the consumer against rip-off companies". The latest set of demands from Len McCluskey? No. Rather, the six proposals that will appear on a New Labour-style pledge card next week from Renewal, the Conservative group aimed at broadening the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters (the launch of which I covered earlier this year).

The group, led by NS contributor David Skelton, has gone further than any other in recognising that the Tories need to dramatically refashion their agenda if they are to ever win a majority again (a feat that has eluded them for 21 years). The party currently has no councillors in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, and just one seat in Scotland. In 2010, it won the support of just 16% of ethnic minority voters.

If it is to improve on this performance next time round, it needs to depart from its traditional script of Europe, immigration and welfare. Voters might share the Tories' views on these issues but they do not share their obsession with them. To win new supporters, the party needs to adopt a relentless focus on living standards. As Skelton notes, "Traditional Labour voters are disenchanted, lack a natural political home, but do not believe the Conservatives are interested in them. We have got to change that perception. We have got to show that we stand up for ordinary working people, and that we are not the party just of the rich or big business. The six issues on the pledge card are designed to show we are on the side of hard-pressed working people."

So, what are the chances of succcess and how worried should Labour be? Renewal enjoys significant support from senior ministers, including Patrick McLoughlin, who wrote the foreword to the collection, and Eric Pickles, who addressed its launch, as well as MPs such as Robert Halfon and Guy Opperman. Its work is also being studied by George Osborne, who appointed Skelton’s former Policy Exchange colleague Neil O’Brien as his special adviser and whose former chief of staff, Matt Hancock, contributed a chapter on "conservatism for the low-paid" to Renewal's recent pamphlet Access All Areas. Several sources have told me that the party is likely to announce a significant increase in the minimum wage at its conference in Manchester next week in a bid to win over low-income groups.

But less than two years away from the election, time is short for the Tories to detoxify their brand. The decision to cut the top rate of tax, to privatise large parts of the NHS and to demonise trade unionists have all added to the damage. But if Renewal's agenda becomes the party's, the long work of winning a hearing among voters who have shunned it for decades will begin. 

David Cameron speaks during an official reception at Downing Street on September 16, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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