Over the next week, David Cameron will want to portray an image of strong leadership and firm resolution to the party and to the country. They will want to be reassured that the Government has a grip on the multi-faceted social and economic issues that the UK faces. And he will need to make clear that the Government understands the day to day concerns of ordinary people and is prepared to take decisive action to meet these concerns.
He also faces the challenge of broadening the Conservative appeal and moving the party’s message from a negative one of deficit reduction to a more positive one of economic growth and job creation.
More than anything else, this week’s Conservative conference, and David Cameron’s speech in particular, needs to spell out what the Government’s plans are to boost jobs and deliver growth.
Twelve months ago, when the Conservatives met in Birmingham, there was a feeling that implementing a deficit reduction plan had got the hard economic spadework out of the way. Now, with stuttering growth and rising unemployment, it is becoming clear that a deficit reduction plan is only a small, albeit necessary, part of an economic strategy.
The Tories will need to reassure the party faithful and the country at large that they have a coherent plan for growth and job creation and that the UK is well placed to ride out the continuing global crisis. Cameron will need to set out a passionate belief in reforming the economy to create jobs and tackle economic insecurity.
Such a plan for growth needs to include bold measures to encourage enterprise and job creation, further develop infrastructure, and pursue bold reforms to the planning system and the labour market. The Government also needs to take more radical steps to reform welfare and increase incentives to work, through promoting more conditionality and reciprocity in the system.
A conference focused on jobs would help the Conservatives address one of their fundamental political difficulties. Recent research for Lord Ashcroft showed that only 27 per cent of voters polled believe that the Conservatives are “on the side of ordinary people.” The party needs to set out that it is on the side of ordinary people and will be taking measures to address their everyday concerns.
By setting out a strategy for jobs, Conservatives will begin to reach out to the ordinary voter worried about job security and the rising cost of living. Emphasising job creation and measures to help low and middle income earners squeezed by the economic situation would help Cameron to show that his Government is in touch with the real concerns of ordinary voters.
Whilst showing that he understands the needs of ordinary voters and is taking measures to boost growth, the Prime Minister must also carve out a more hopeful and positive message, against a difficult backdrop. He needs to make clear what the Government is doing to change the country for the better and that his party remains a positive and progressive one.
This might include setting out how reforms, in education for example, will improve outcomes for those from more deprived backgrounds. He also has to make clear that progressive reforms, from the pupil premium to gay marriage, aren’t just Liberal Democrat inspired.
This party conference isn’t set against an easy political or economic backdrop for the Conservatives. It is, however, their chance to set out a positive vision, with a broad appeal, of growth, reform and greater opportunity.
David Skelton is deputy director of Policy Exchange