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Reviewed: Tory Modernisation 2.0 ed. Ryan Shorthouse & Guy Stagg

Homesick Blues.

Tory Modernisation 2.0: the Future of the Conservative Party
Edited by Ryan Shorthouse and Guy Stagg
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Today, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith sit together in cabinet. Rewind a decade, however, and it was all very different. Back in 2003, Gove wasn’t yet an MP but a crusading columnist, arguing, with other Tory modernisers, that the party had to drag itself into the 21st century on social issues and get over its fixation with Thatcherism.

IDS, on the other hand, was the Tories’ embattled leader, who had flirted with compassionate conservatism before reverting to type and trumpeting, in what would turn out to be his last conference speech as leader, the so-called “Tebbit trinity” of Europe, immigration and taxes.

By then, the sharks – including Gove – were beginning to circle. Calling on Duncan Smith to step down, he borrowed a few lines from Rudyard Kipling: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,/And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.”

Within weeks, IDS was gone, replaced by Michael Howard, who promptly surprised everyone by briefly appearing to have undergone a conversion to a modernising agenda that, by that time, was best articulated by Policy Exchange – the ginger group-cumthink tank fronted by Gove and two other current ministers, Nicholas Boles and Francis Maude. Howard’s heart, however, wasn’t really in it and, by the 2005 election, his pitch, honed by the Australian strategist Lynton Crosby and a young MP called David Cameron, was as Thatcherite and as populist as ever.

Only after the ensuing defeat did Cameron put his considerable talents at the service of the modernisers. And only after he won the leadership in December 2005 did the party commit itself to “change to win”. Except that it didn’t – not quite, anyway. For the most part, Cameron worked around rather than faced down internal opposition. Worse still, in May 2010, he failed to persuade voters to grant him an outright majority.

That failure still forms a fault line through today’s Conservative Party. According to many activists and MPs, Cameron missed an open goal by not offering the country a clear enough (that is, Thatcherite) alternative. Instead, he had diluted their message with his support for “progressive” social causes that had little or no resonance outside Notting Hill. At the same time, by offering guarantees to ring-fence spending on big-ticket items such as the NHS and retirement benefits, he had, in effect, denied his government the freedom both to make much-needed savings and to complete the free-market revolution.

Others – including most of the contributors to this slim but thought-provoking volume – see things very differently. As Matthew d’Ancona argues, it was too little rather than too much modernisation that did for the Tories in 2010. According to this analysis, Cameron, spooked by the financial crisis, hit the brakes too early and, by defaulting to orthodoxy before the electorate was sufficiently reassured as to his good intentions, ensured that the Conservatives weren’t yet trusted enough to assume office without a deal with the Liberal Democrats.

As a result, argues d’Ancona (who is currently writing an eagerly awaited book on the coalition), the Tories are in far more trouble than they – particularly those on the Thatch - erite and populist right – realise. If, instead of moving quickly to jump-start the stalled modernisation process, they fall back into the tribal and doctrinal thinking and rhetoric of the 1980s, then the reforms that they (and, for the most part, he) regards as necessary – reducing the deficit, freeing up education, making work rather than welfare pay, rebooting the NHS – will be too easily misrepresented by their opponents. It will also, as the acting director of Policy Exchange, David Skelton, notes in picking up on extensive opinion research, strand them further than ever from the ethnic-minority, urban, working- class and northern voters they need to convince if they are to win healthy majorities in the future.

D’Ancona and most of his fellow contributors assume or at least hope that what is popularly understood as One-Nation Conservatism – an “open-minded and bighearted” creed “rooted in pragmatism, not in idealism”, to quote the book’s editors – remains a strong and viable strain in the 21stcentury Tory party. To read David Willetts’s essay, which stresses the centre right’s recognition of both “wings” (freedom and aspiration) and “roots” (tradition and community), this is not so hard to believe. Yet, back in the real world, one suspects that Willetts, while in good company here, may be in a smaller minority among his parliamentary colleagues than he would have us believe.

This is not to suggest that he or the rest of the contributors are living in cloud cuckoo land. Indeed, many of them make admirable efforts to ensure that their political and social analyses and the policy prescriptions that they come up with are rooted in empirical research. And while they are happy to engage in some (bright) blue-sky thinking, by no means all of it strikes one as utterly incapable of solving some of the tangible and persistent problems that impinge on the lives of the many ordinary people who remain unconvinced that the Tories have much to offer them.

Doing the latter, all the authors seem to agree, is central to “Modernisation 2.0”. Where version one was often (although never exclusively) about persuading educated and often liberal middle-class voters that the Tories were no longer “the nasty party”, version two, they insist, has to focus on the more fundamental concerns of what James O’Shaughnessy, director of policy at No 10 between 2010 and 2011, calls “the people we need to vote for us” – those living somewhere “between the suburbs and the council blocks”, “younger families who ‘work hard and do the right thing’ but often wonder why they bother” and who desperately need to be given “positive reasons to vote Conservative”.

For O’Shaughnessy, these would include a huge expansion in house-building, achieved by the kind of deregulation that scares some Tories rigid, as well as a switch from providing services in kind to cash lump sums and even a James Purnell-style job-guarantee scheme for the long-term unemployed.

Other iconoclastic ideas include capping energy bills and commuting costs (Skelton), more integrated budgeting and payment-byresults (Jonty Olliff-Cooper), loans-based early-years provision, for-profit state schools and more creative financing of postgraduate education (Ryan Shorthouse), truly taking younger people’s lack of political participation seriously (Guy Stagg), likewise loneliness (Graeme Archer), genuinely opening up (and divorcing) trade and aid (Fiona Melville) and getting real about renewables (Ben Caldecott).

Even if some of those ideas are a little less centrist or at least a little more ideological than some of their proponents seem to realise, this is a worthwhile exercise. Governments, after all, can become so preoccupied with day-to-day firefighting and with delivering the manifesto on which they fought the last election that they can easily run out of ideas for the next one. This book aims to help by providing what Willetts calls “midflight refuelling”.

Whether the Tories are able to take much of it on board is another matter. At the moment they seem far too focused on Europe, on hitting their fabled immigration target, on setting “strivers” against “skivers” and on what some of its members regard as a running battle with the teaching profession. If this isn’t wobbling back to the fire, then I don’t know what is.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of “The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron” (Polity Press, £14.99)

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.