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