There must be an interesting observation to be made about this phenomenon, but I can't think what it is.
By the way Tim and Mark, I will get round to linking to your blogs.
Tom Greeves is a writer, stand-up comedian and actor. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @tomgreeves
Effectively, there are three pillars to this self-regulatory code: don’t advocate anything that introduces uncertainty about the feasibility or desirability of the party’s agenda – whether this representation is fair or not; it’s not enough to be a different type of Conservatives Party – you also have to be a different type of politician; and say something positive about what central government should start doing rather than just what it should stop doing. But why make three points when seventeen will do?
1. Winning is everything. As Ann Widdecombe puts it: ‘Unless we get into government we can’t do anything about anything.’ After 7/7, the job of Conservative politicians was to give the odd interview outside No.10 and convene the Shadow Cobra committee; the job of Labour politicians was to decide how to make Britain safer. People working in the Downing Street Policy Unit can inspire changes that affect millions of people; people working in the Conservative Policy Unit got to write pamphlets. There’s no point winning the leadership election if you can’t win the general election, so don’t say anything that will help you win the election that doesn’t matter and lose the one that does. So what if the Telegraph says you’re timid if that is the price of convincing target voters that you’re safe?
2. Work for us, not for Labour. At the last election, the most common evaluation of the two parties was ‘I am dissatisfied with Labour overall but still prefer them to the Tories’. It’s no use giving people reasons to vote against Labour if they still have bigger reasons for voting against us. The new leader should remove these reasons one by one. For example, he should veto any policy that allows Labour to respond criticism of their record on health by saying: ‘Well, you want to take £2 billion out of the NHS to subsidise private operations. How is that going to help?’ As long as the party has policies like this, it must choose between saying nothing on the big issues and saying something that loses us support. The leader should seek ‘clear blue water’ only on issues where the arguments are straightforward and in our favour and build bridges across it where they aren’t.
3. Take the narrow road. Every politician likes to promise popular things and no politician likes to promise unpopular things. So successive Conservative leaders have promised lots of nice things (tax cuts, pension increases, more police) and said they’d pay for it all by cutting out waste. If a programme looks too good to be true, people will conclude that it probably is. After all, why should anyone believe that a Conservative Government would be more efficient than a Labour Government unless they already thought we were much more competent? And how can you prove this in Opposition? The sums must not only add up but be seen to add up. That means taking some tough choices with real losers (like the children on the assisted places scheme who lost out when Labour promised smaller class sizes). If you don’t have a believable answer to the question ‘how will you pay for it?’ you shouldn’t have the policy.
4. Forget the little stuff and learn how to say no. It makes life easier for shadow ministers if they can promise to scrap the tax on Olympic lottery tickets, expand the TA, pay special constables, fund a national campaign against uninsured drivers, establish a national parenting service, spend more on marketing tourism, or introduce student bursaries. But is anyone really going to vote for this stuff? If we ever do get close to Labour in the polls, our spending plans will come under a lot more scrutiny than they have in the previous two elections. The leader’s job is to make sure they can withstand it. Labour don’t have to prove that the sums don’t add up – just to sow enough doubt to make people think twice. The more detailed the spending plans, the more targets Labour can choose from.
5. Why promise tax cuts? This is emphatically not the same question as ‘why should taxes be cut?’ People simply don’t believe politicians who promise tax cuts (in 2005, 51% thought a Conservative Government would increase taxes). They’ve seen enough Governments (including Conservative Governments) give with one hand and take with the other. And while two-thirds would prefer spending cuts to tax increases, a similar proportion would prefer spending increases to tax cuts. If you really believe you can convince people that tax cuts are the best use of resources and that people your promises are believable, don’t take your own word for it: commission some opinion research and test the arguments. Remember that you don’t have to rule out cutting taxes for five years, but not everything that isn’t ruled out has to be ruled in. There are plenty of other uses for any savings you identify – such as a zero-tolerance approach to law and order.
6. Forge an agenda for the state. Not every Conservative idea is a small state idea, so throw away the policy template that says central government is always the problem and can never be part of the solution. You can’t express your values by saying that you’d always let someone else decide what to do. So stop shadow ministers from boasting that their first act after measuring up the curtains would be to reduce their own powers. Instead of seeking to delegate ever more responsibilities to the scarcely-elected councillors who crave power or the parents and patients who don’t, think how central government could intervene to make things better. That way, we can actually have something to say about what should happen in public services rather than how they are structured. When many of the biggest issues in 21st century politics involve services provided by the public sector, why should anyone vote for a politician who says ‘I don’t have the answers, but I think someone else might’?
People don’t want choice – they just want their local public services to be good. No child should have to sit on a bus for two hours every day to get to a school that will teach him to read and write. And, while diversity of provision may lead to worthwhile innovation, we already know plenty about what works (traditional teaching methods; visible policing) and what doesn’t (‘progressive’ classrooms and police nowhere near any potential crime scene). So tell the shadow education secretary not to waste time thinking about vouchers until he’s made all primary schools teach reading using synthetic phonics and times tables by rote, and all secondary schools stream their lessons. When Tory MPs write pamphlets saying they look forward to the day when school vouchers produce ‘experimental schools with free play and no uniforms’, say you disagree. Tell the Shadow Home Secretary to confront chief constables and insist that they deploy more officers on the beat; don’t let him pass the buck to local people.
7. Be bored stiff by Europe. Most people want to be ‘in Europe, not run by Europe’. There is no majority in favour of withdrawal – and if there were, it would soon disappear when businesses threatened to move jobs overseas. And do you really want a series of oddballs with pound badges on their lapels to appear on voters’ TV screens singing your praises? Saying you want to renegotiate treaties throws up the spectre of withdrawal and opens a whole can of scare stories. Nor may people whose favoured way of spoiling their ballot paper is to vote UKIP be rational enough to vote for you if you said it was time to get out.
Remember that people can agree with your position and still find your obsessive approach to the subject a little strange. Someone who doesn’t like bananas (straight or otherwise) may not warm to a colleague whose taste buds work in a similar way and feels compelled to talk about this for hours on end. The Europhiles have given up on the euro and the constitution has been publicly executed in more than one country. Just talk about something else.
8. Know Brown’s strengths and his weaknesses. According to Alastair Campbell: ‘When Iain Duncan Smith was Conservative Party leader, Tony Blair insisted on regular discussions to go over his opposite number’s strengths and weaknesses. Strengths as well as weaknesses, I emphasise.Good politicians never underestimate their opponents.’ Gordon Brown is a more formidable politician that Iain Duncan Smith, so don’t imagine that he will make many elementary mistakes. The fact that he has orchestrated one step change in Government spending doesn’t mean he will do so again regardless of whether the economy can bear it.
In their attempt to find an explanation of ‘New Labour’, some Conservatives have sought to co-opt the Blairites as Tories in red rosettes. On this view, the Brownites are Old Labour, red in tooth and claw and their champion’s pasge to No. 10 will see normal service resumed. The truth is more subtle than this. Take the time when Alan Milburn wanted foundation hospitals to borrow money, and Brown said no because he didn’t want to choose between bailing them out and letting them hospital close down (what would you do if you were Chancellor in that situation?). In that instance it was the Blairites who displayed the empty-headed optimism of Old Labour and the Chancellor who gave the world-weary shake of the head that used to safeguard Conservative administrations from misadventure.
Perhaps Brown’s biggest weakness is a matter of style rather than substance. He is the ultimate practitioner of ‘old politics’ and more relentlessly on message than any Blair Babe. Unlike Blair, I can’t remember him ever conceding that he might once have made a mistake about anything. When John Humphrys says the Chancellor ‘is quite easily the most boring political interviewee I have ever had in my whole bloody life’, you can’t disagree. Brown plays every interview like a football team after the 0-0 draw, never answering a question, always sticking to the script, never making a ‘gaffe’ but never being remotely endearing. He clearly detests criticism and blusters his way through it. So…
9. You’re a politician, so don’t behave like one. When people don’t like the way politicians conduct themselves, a clever politician conducts himself differently. Top of the list of complaints is ‘playground politics’, so tell Tory MPs to stop behaving like children in the Commons chamber. What you say about Labour says more about you than it does about them – so reject the sort of disproportionate rhetoric that can make you sound deranged. Use PMQs to question the Prime Minister, not to humiliate yourself by trying to humiliate him.
Your self-confidence should be infectious, not delusional, and voters shouldn’t be taken for granted. In his speech accepting the leadership of the Labour Party, Tony Blair said: ‘The Tories have lost the nation’s trust. But that does not mean we inherit it automatically.’ Yet despite being behind in the polls, Conservatives have continued to talk as though it was beyond doubt that we would be elected at the next election. Why?
Don’t devalue the currency of your criticism by criticising everything and never praising anything the Government does. Don’t, for example, attack ministers for refusing to address a teaching union whose delegates chased a blind secretary of state into a cupboard or pretend the BBC is a guardian of impartiality the moment it attacks Labour (from the Left). ‘This isn’t all down to the Government, but by doing X they have made it worse’ will usually some more credible (and make you sound more grown-up) than ‘this is all Labour’s fault’. Why try to prove that everything bad results from a post-1997 policy change even when it very clearly doesn’t? The two reactions this type of comment will arouse are ‘he would say that’ and a suspicion that you want to take us back to the world as it was. You’ll never convince anyone that it was a mistake to kick us out; instead, try making it easier for them to reconcile voting Labour then with voting Tory now.
10. Treat Parliament with contempt – or at least with a little less reverence. Don’t complain about statistics being released when Parliament is in recess – you might be enjoying a four month holiday, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is. Don’t whinge when announcements are trailed in the media – why should MPs get to hear everything first? Don’t complain about Tony Blair’s voting record – you don’t deserve to be Prime Minister if you’d waste that time traipsing through the division lobbies every night. Consider dropping some of the silly traditions: only political anoraks know who is ‘the Hon Member for X’, so why can’t you call him by his name? ‘Back to the floor’ initiatives (like Michael Portillo’s stint as a hospital porter) have huge potential, so think about making these compulsory for Tory MPs or at lest for the Shadow Cabinet. Then they might not need their highly paid directorships to ‘keep them in touch with the real world’…
11. Don’t allow NIMBYs in your back yard. The Conservative Party can’t just be the party that tries to hold back the tide of progress. We used to argue against tariffs and subsidies – pointing out that millions of people lost a little from these things in order that a few people could gain a lot. Some want us to be on the opposite side of today’s equivalent debate. They think that local people are the only stakeholders (yes, I hate that word too - someone give me a synonym) who should have a say on anything from house building to airport runways to mobile phone masts. Out of context, these things are all unpopular. But I suspect everyone knows deep down that you need masts if you want your mobile phone to work and that a growing population has to be housed somewhere.
12. This is a secular election. There are some thoughtful people on the Christian wing of the Conservative Party with a lot to contribute, but don’t let them contribute too much. Thankfully, British Conservatives don’t need the support of evangelicals in the same way that American conservatives do. So let the assertion that stem cell research is a form of cannibalism stay on their websites and out of your speeches (imagine the reaction if the research you opposed produced a cure for a major disease). And ask yourself whether championing ‘faith schools’ might sound just a little bit weird to the vast majority of parents who would never use them.
13. Don’t mistake an elephant trap for an open goal. We’re fighting an election in four or five years’ time, not today. Don’t promise to reverse Government initiatives that are unpopular today but might not be in the limelight when it matters. Don’t, for example, promise to repeal tuition fees and then find yourself scrabbling around for a way to pay for this commitment. Even if the tax credit system is a complete mess, think very carefully before committing yourself to major structural changes that could scare millions of people into believing (sometimes correctly) that they’d be worse off.
14. Be robust on the war on terror. Forget all the stuff about how it is the Opposition’s job to oppose – it’s your job to demonstrate that you can be trusted to run the country in difficult times. We don’t ‘do the terrorist’s job for him’ by curtailing his freedoms; we make it harder for him to kill us. This isn’t a clash of civilisations – it’s a clash between civilisation and its antithesis. Don’t put so much as a toe on the wrong side of this debate.
15. Get the right sort of candidates. John Redwood’s slim hopes of becoming Prime Minister in 1995 disappeared when he launched his campaign surrounded by eccentric MPs banging tables and seemingly wearing fancy dress. Similarly, the sort of person who says he wants to get elected to support your Government will tell voters something about the kind of Government you would lead. I don’t want to criticise people who give up every weekend to knock on doors when I’m far too lazy to do this myself, but some of them play to the Tory caricature when we simply can’t afford this.
The modernisers are right to say we need a need a more diverse range of candidates but that is only part of the problem. ‘Black or white’ and ‘male or female’, are much less important questions than ‘normal or abnormal’. I don’t care whether you centralise candidate selection, hold local primaries or just have a word in the ear of association chairmen - but make sure it works.
16. Don’t ‘make the case’ – accept that people have made theirs. Confronted with polling evidence that small state solutions aren’t vote winners, Tories conclude that we need to ‘make the case’ for these things. This supposes that there are millions of people sitting in front of their TV screens waiting for a bloke in a pinstriped suit to tell them how healthcare would be much better if people could make big fat profits out of it. There aren’t – and if there were, they’d be turned off by us rather than turned on by the idea. Labour can talk about private involvement in public services because their good intentions aren’t in doubt. We should focus on proposing ways of improving public services that don’t play to people’s worst fears about us.
17. Do your research. Opinion polls tell you what people think - unless the questions are designed to help you pretend they think differently. Focus groups tell you why they think it. Qualitative research can teach you what your target voters have heard about (usually far less than people in the Westminster village assume), how they describe things, what they can be persuaded of, and - perhaps most importantly - what they can’t be persuaded of. If you can’t make target voters agree with a proposition when they’re locked in a room for an hour with a handful of strangers and a bowl of crisps, you’ll never persuade them when you have to compete for their attention with their jobs, their families and the Eastenders omnibus. Focus groups are also the perfect medium for testing reactions to the sort of arguments that would surround your ideas in an election campaign. If you’d rather drive blindfolded, you shouldn’t be behind the wheel.
These are improving thoughts, and I am very grateful to Richard for sharing them with us. I will reflect further and maybe comment on each point. There's more here that I agree with than either of us might have expected, and more that gives me pause too.
And I reiterate that I welcome guest posts, even when I disagree with their content. firstname.lastname@example.org