Much has been written about the electoral shock suffered by the Conservatives earlier this year, and how they might recover, if at all. Many proposals have been put forward, including a Conservative equivalent of Momentum and a ‘Tory Glastonbury’.
The Conservatives, however, are never going to be cool or counter-cultural. The failure of Activate, which collapsed in on itself in a ludicrously short time, gives an indication of this reality. While the Tories dither over whether Mrs May is the right person to lead both party and country in the face of lackluster potential replacements, they pour time, thought and energy wastefully away. What they should be focusing onis how to rebuild their brand anew, and finding a fresh means to achieve electoral success. Corbyn’s achievement in reviving Labour’s fortunes will not be stopped by adopting ‘Corbynism-lite’.
There were obvious faults in the recent Conservative campaign. In particular, the lack of costings in the manifesto and the abandonment of the economic argument to Corbyn’s Labour party. May’s lack of charisma, and use of the “strong and stable” mantra ad nauseam, hardly helped things. These, however, are quick fixes; problems to which blame can easily be apportioned. To address the deeper rot within the party, the Tories must go back to their roots. Indeed, faced by a Labour opposition pursuing radically different policies, it is time for the Conservative Party to make the case for capitalism and the good it can do. Capitalism has both positive and negative elements. Only by acknowledging both sides of the coin, and acting to stem those harmful elements whilst furthering entrepreneurism, investment and technological change – those key forces in the creation of long-term prosperity – can they hope to succeed.
The Conservatives must begin to think about the long-term future. In 1884, Lord Salisbury saw the potential for the Conservatives to lose nearly 50 seats due to proposed franchise alterations; however, he also saw the opportunity to gain votes and MPs through the redistribution of seats. In the end, the franchise was widened and seats were redistributed, benefiting the Conservatives. If the Conservative party is to rebuild a successful electoral coalition, it must return to the idea of ‘Villa Toryism’ that Salisbury constructed as a consequence of those reforms. It must expand or, insome cases, rebuild a network of Conservative-voting suburban areas, and engage them as Salisbury’s party did at the turn of the century. Should the Conservatives begin to renew this strategy, it would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Faced by a Labour opposition pursuing radically different policies, it is time for the Conservative Party to make the case for capitalism and the good it can do
Building new, affordable homes would of course underpin this effort. Yet this is no easy task. Writing in 1951 as Housing Minister, Harold Macmillan complained that he“really [did not have] a clue howto set about the job”. But he succeeded in building 300,000 new homes by 1953, a year ahead of schedule. As Churchill, with typical eloquence, suggested at the start of MacMillan’s time as Housing Minister, “every humble home will bless your name if you succeed”. This maxim would doubtless apply today should someone be bold enough to follow in Macmillan’s steps.
Given that the green belt mostly encompasses heavily Tory-voting areas around London, the housing conundrum becomes particularly acute for the Conservative party. Yet, as a study from the Adam Smith Institute published at the start of this year revealed, “just 3.7 percent of London’s green belt — that fraction within 15 minutes walking distance of existing train stations — would beenough for 1 million new homes at unambitious densities”.
Sajid Javid recently implied an imminent review of social housing policy after the disaster of Grenfell Tower. However, he must also address the quantity of social housing. The proportion of families in this sector has halved since 1981, while there are 11 million people in rented accommodation in the private market, many of whom fear that they might be stuck renting indefinitely. The hands-off approach to private renting will have to be reviewed. While there are no easy answers, the result of inaction – as Theresa May correctly asserted at the launch of her leadership campaign – is that “more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth”. There is so solution that allows government to avoid building more houses. It must intervene reasonably and decisively.
Alongside the issue of housing, the Tory rebrand must focus on their becoming the party of reform. They must be seen to act against the excesses of capitalism. Tackling unrestricted executive pay in a meaningful way would go a long way to showing that the Conservatives do not always buckle under pressure from big businesses and vested interests. Some party donors may grumble, but they have no other alternative political home to relocate to. They must ensure the laws by which the free market operates are fair as well as free. It is crucial that they strengthen the role ofemployees in the management and boards of companies, enforce tax laws more robustly, challenge disproportionate market power, and break up monopolies. The Conservatives have a duty to decide what degree of market power produces an unacceptable monopoly. These decisions are not intrusive to the free market; they constitute the free market. Rather than accept the status quo, the Tories should be the party that sets it.
And there is no reason why a socially liberal agenda should not be entrenched in Tory policy. The Conservatives need to embrace and enshrine in legislation LGBTQ rights, and uphold too the rights of workers. If they are to have any hope of winning back the cosmopolitan liberal voter, they must adopt these ideas. We live in a liberal, capitalist democracy, and the Tories must recognise this, rather than heed the extreme right of the party.
The Conservative party has traditionally struggled to discipline itself when lacking a dominant, entrenched leader — a description which the Prime Minister no longer fits. Tory MPs are faced by an unprecedented resurgence from the hard left, notwithstanding the monumental task of taking the UK out of the European Union. Now, if ever, would surely be the time for the Conservatives to make the case anew for capitalism; for moderate, sensible conservatism in a positive, innovative and dynamic fashion.