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  1. Long reads
3 October 2005


As Tories head for Blackpool and the leadership contest gets serious, two writers knock a few miscon

By Alan Duncan

The problem is our MPs. Many still don’t get it

By Alan Duncan

”Mum . . . why don’t people like the Conservatives?” “Well it’s difficult to explain, dear.” Perhaps if a few more of my fellow MPs stopped to work out the answer we’d be back in business. The party members always get the blame for being blue-rinsed bigots, but I’m tired of this. They just want to be led, and will respond to any competent agenda. The problem is our MPs. Too many of them just don’t get it.

Winning the 1992 election was a disaster. We had no adequate agenda for a fourth term but Margaret Thatcher had so branded Neil Kinnock that, in the throes of economic uncertainty, the electorate held on to nurse. Then – oops! – we bailed out of the ex-change rate mechanism, and out too went our unique selling point: our reputation for economic competence. We’d had a good run, and had rescued Britain from collapse, but there isn’t much gratitude in this business. People’s priorities had changed, their social attitudes had changed, Labour had changed, but we had not.

The death of John Smith accelerated the change in Labour and a brilliant negative campaign sent us packing. Ever since, cunning positioning has made left and right converge, and the distinctiveness of Conservative thought evaporate. Now, however, there are the glimmerings of recovery. The current leadership contest provides us with the opportunity to combine messenger and message with a new force. Tony Blair’s eventual departure will provide the most significant change in the chemistry of our national politics. It’s our chance, because people will soon look at Gordon Brown as prime minister and say, “Yuk!”

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It is wrong to think only of a Conservative leader needing to beat a prime minister across the despatch box. A leader needs to appeal across a spectrum of qualities and convey all sorts of messages through demeanour, imagery and looks. Over the past few years the Conservatives have not created a single visual image that sticks favourably in the mind or illustrates a policy position. This matters. If it doesn’t work on TV, it doesn’t work at the polls.

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Our new leader will have to run a modern political party and ensure that it masters the campaigning methods an election campaign requires. That’s pictures again, and language-crafting, and parachuting into Labour’s city heartlands. For too long we have had no coherent strategy for winning voters who are young and urban. The key to this is the Liberal Democrats. We have never taken them seriously enough, and by deriding them we have reinforced their support. It is time to woo their voters with reason.

We must leave no doubt that we are a party free of prejudice and self-righteousness. Unfortunately, new factions are emerging in the parliamentary party which risk perpetuating all the negative impact from which we have suffered so much. Just when we might break out of the 30 per cent band where we’ve been stuck for a decade, they threaten to keep us from wooing those extra votes that would make the difference between defeat and victory.

In the end, though, it’s the economy, stupid. Gordon’s Prudence is turning into a slut and only he is to blame. We don’t need to change our fundamental views as Labour did. We have always believed in sound money and proper provision over the cycle of anyone’s life. We should want tax cuts, but not promise them just like that. We should argue for reform in the public sector but set people’s minds at rest that their provision is secure. We should once again become champions of the underprivileged, but reject the left’s mistaken approach to education and authority.

Aspiration, fair-mindedness and charisma should be the main components of our platform. If message and messenger combine at last, we’ll be back on the march.

Alan Duncan is Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton

Exclude the grass roots – and get a right-winger

By Philip Cowley

The most overused statistic in British politics is that the RSPB has more members than the three main parties combined. The comparison has always struck me as unfair. If you join the RSPB you get a regular magazine full of pictures of beautiful birds, along with the chance to visit stunning nature reserves. Plus a free seed feeder. Join the Labour Party and you get a magazine full of pictures of John Prescott, along with the chance to deliver leaflets on council estates. Plus GC meetings.

Next on the most overused statistics list is the claim that the average age of Conservative Party members is 64 – proof, we are told, of how out of touch and extreme they are. It’s the Bart Simpson view: “Dad, you’re a very old man and old people are useless.” It explains (apparently) why they chose IDS as leader in 2001 and justified the attempt to strip them of a role in choosing the next leader.

That this proposal was rejected is something everyone in politics should celebrate (it was astonishing to see so many of those who bemoan attempts to centralise the Labour Party endorsing the exclusion of Conservative activists). And, contrary to the general expectation, it makes it less likely, not more so, that the party will choose the most right-of-centre of the main candidates.

Let’s start with that 64 figure. For one thing it’s wrong; it should be 62. For another it’s out of date: it comes from a survey carried out 13 years ago, and what evidence we have since shows the party getting younger. That same 1992 survey, by the way, also showed that, far from being a bunch of right-wing lunatics, the Conservative grass roots were on the whole more pragmatic than dogmatic. And remember that the average age of those who actually voted in the 2005 general election was above 50. A party with hordes of twentysomethings would be far more out of touch with voters than one packed with people considering early retirement.

Remember, too, that in 1997 it was Conservative MPs who decided they wanted William Hague as leader rather than Ken Clarke – with Clarke the clear favourite in the (then purely advisory) ballot of grass-roots chairmen. In 2001, it is true, the grass roots chose Iain Duncan Smith over Clarke, but this was not, as it is often portrayed, an example of them contradicting the views of their wise MPs. Clarke may have topped the last ballot of MPs in 2001, with IDS second, but that was merely a poll to identify the two candidates to be put before the grass roots. Had the final decision been left to the MPs alone, there is no guarantee they would have picked Clarke. Michael Portillo was the third-placed candidate: after his elimination there would have been a run-off. Would the 53 MPs who backed Portillo up to then have switched to Clarke – or to IDS? It is likely that, rather than overruling the parliamentary party in 2001, the grass roots merely reached the same conclusion as their MPs would have done.

Four years on, and evidence of extremism is still pretty scarce. The conventional wisdom a month ago was that the completely fruit-loops Tory grass roots wouldn’t stand for Clarke and would instead plump for the most right-wing candidate. Hence the David Davis camp was believed to want the grass roots involved; those opposed to Davis wanted the decision restricted to MPs. Yet a YouGov survey of Conservative members early last month had Clarke and Davis in effect neck-and-neck (with activists preferring Clarke to David Cameron by 53 per cent to 36 per cent).

With Davis ahead among MPs, it was clear that Clarke’s best chance lay with keeping the grass roots involved; restricting the decision to MPs alone would have made it more likely that Davis will become leader. So much for conventional wisdom.

The parliamentary arithmetic makes it (almost) certain that Davis will be one of the two names to be offered up to the party membership; the race is therefore on to be the other one – to be, in effect, the Iain Duncan Smith of 2005. To know who that person will be, it is not enough to know about MPs’ first preferences, though unfortunately, that is all the newspapers ask when they carry out their surveys. We also need to know about their second (and, in some cases, third) preferences.

The past two leadership contests show that it is these transfers that count. In 1997 Clarke led every round – except the last. As defeated candidates were knocked out their supporters tended to transfer their allegiance to Anyone But Ken. Even Clarke’s last-minute alliance with John Redwood didn’t stop most Redwood supporters backing Hague instead. Ditto for Portillo in 2001: he had a clear lead in the first round, but struggled to attract votes from the supporters of defeated candidates and finished third.

The decision to throw out the proposed rule changes therefore means that the party’s grass roots retain the final say – but the MPs remain gatekeepers. With Clarke and Cameron relatively close in declared support so far, who gets through may depend on the second preferences of those backing Liam Fox.

Philip Cowley is the author of The Rebels: how Blair mislaid his majority, to be published by Politico’s on 24 October