2014 election focus: Conservatives must put long-term survival ahead of short-term power

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May 31, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

Having lived much of my life under the belief that if you have low expectations of everything you are more likely to be happy about what then happens  – I can understand why the Conservative Party have been rather blasé about losing so many seats in the local council elections and coming third in a national election for the first time in its history.

Given they had so carefully lowered expectations amongst their supporters of how they would do in the council elections, they ended up not losing as many seats as were feared. They also matched Labour around the country in the EU elections, only losing to them because of a current Labour bulge in London. Bear in mind that incumbent governments always struggle in council and EU elections, it really wasn’t a disaster.

This would explain why there is none of the febrile speculation about David Cameron’s leadership that is currently swirling around Nick Clegg, and none of the barely-suppressed murmurings about Ed Miliband either. Instead, Cameron is getting a lot of advice from many directions.

He has a year until the next election and the choice he takes now is, I fear, about whether he puts short-term power for himself ahead of the long-term electoral interests of the Conservative Party.

The long-term electoral interests of the Conservative Party lie in avoiding returning to the ‘nasty party’ image of the 80s, 90s and early 00s. They lie in retaining what made it a possibility that Cameron could have won the 2010 election despite needing the massive swing that he did – the social liberalism that made it palatable for centre-left voters to vote for them added to the economic competence that he has now proven he and his team have to steer the UK through the economic crisis they were in. What he mustn’t do is put the party in a position where entire generations swear never to vote Conservative as long as they live.

Which is what could happen if Cameron wants to put short-term power first.  The worst case scenario is that he will look at an electoral pact with UKIP, meaning they won’t challenge each other in seats where it would mean a victory for Labour. What Cameron would have to give in order to get that pact will be policy pledges around the EU and immigration that will push the party so far to the right that whilst they may remain in power for one more election, the movement against them from anyone with leanings from centre-right to left would be so great that they would lose in 2020 and then be out of power for a very long time.

The next worst case scenario is that Cameron will indulge in dog-whistle politics to try and win back those voters who have drifted to UKIP. The country is already hurt by the immigration cap on non-EU entrants which is costing us the considerable brain power of numerous students, scientists and technologists we need to continue our progress in innovation and the healthcare staff we need to support the needs of our ageing population in the NHS. Stunts like those ‘go home’ vans travelling around the country just made it worse. Instead…the Tories need to look at policies that help those who fear the effects of immigration in a positive way.

The promise of the EU referendum in 2017 has some arguments for it, because at least the party can say that they are giving the public a chance to give a renewed mandate for our engagement in the EU 42 years after the last one – but UKIP want them to bring it forward. This will not give Cameron the chance to carry out the renegotiation he feels will be necessary before the referendum (which is fine for UKIP as they want out – but not for Cameron as he wants in but with a change in terms of engagement). So he shouldn’t change that. But what he does need to do is again look at ways to help those who are negatively affected, or perceive themselves to be negatively affected by our EU membership.

I will return to this a lot over the next year – but we are talking about people who are unemployed, and believe it is because there is someone from the EU taking their job. We are also talking about people who were trying to support their families on very low wages which have been made even lower by the higher labour supply caused by free movement of labour within the EU. UKIP are telling these people that leaving the EU can solve this. So these people are voting for them. To win them back, the Conservatives need to look at it another way.

So if I were David Cameron I would be investing long-term in a series of supply-side policies which help those people so negatively affected by immigration and the EU.

There needs to be an active regional policy that really helps those in areas of high unemployment, including training schemes for the population, subsidies or tax breaks for firms who locate there. These areas may not have many conservative voters actually living there – but those elsewhere in the country thinking of voting Conservative will notice that they are doing it.

This involves insisting on a living wage being paid – which reduces the money they have to spend on tax credits, makes it worthwhile to work and makes in-work poverty less likely. The extra labour supply from the EU means that the ‘equilibrium wage’ (where demand for labour meets supply) is the minimum wage in many places (or lower) and this can only be addressed by mandating a living wage. At the moment the Tories could be bounced out of government with the legacy of being the party that sat back whilst people in full-time employment were forced to use food banks.

But most of all it involves proper investment in education – to help the future workers of this country. My fear is that the current education policy is so divisive, that free schools are so open to manipulation and uncontrollable from central government that education might actually go backwards. The Tories should be doing what they can to help the children around the country be ready to thrive in the globalised labour market place. They should be able to point in twenty years time to how they did that.

UKIP is a “stop the world we want to get off” party. The Conservatives should be a “this is how the world is going, we want to help our population get on” party.

But the problem with the career politicians we have running this country – none of whom have had a worthwhile job outside politics (barring “head of communications at Carlton TV” which Cameron was airlifted into) is that their entire validation is about getting political power. The long-term survival of the Conservatives needs to be more about the work they do to help the UK retain their power in the world without excluding people. Over the next year I hope to see policies that do that. If those policies don’t win the next election – so be it – because winning the next election at any cost could be far worse.

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