The Conservative Party needs a new name
Published by The Daily Telegraph (5th October, 2015)
Gathering for their conference in Manchester this week, the Conservatives will attempt one of the most audacious makeovers in political history by trying to rebrand a party traditionally associated with the wealthy as an organisation for workers. Since they have just selected another Old Etonian as their candidate for London mayor, this might seem futile. Yet the party has also announced plans already to pump up the minimum wage and devolve power to the North, although justified attempts to stop subsidising low pay by cutting back tax credits might yet damage this cause.
In fact, the Tories need to display far more boldness. Since Labour has vacated the centre ground under Jeremy Corbyn, why not seize the moment by changing the name of the party? This might seem a surprising suggestion for the first conference after an election in which the Tories pulled off a shock victory. Yet this was due to a host of reasons, from David Cameron’s personal appeal to his opponent’s ineptitude and fears of Scottish nationalism; it would be foolish to think the Conservative brand has lost its toxicity.
Remember those ‘shy Tories’ that flummoxed the pollsters before May’s election? Why would moderate people be so reluctant to identify with the Conservative Party, even to a pollster, if there were not a degree of dislike for its perceived values? Like it or not, for many voters – even some backing the Tories in the ballot box – the idea of identifying with the Conservatives smacks of crude self-interest; the party’s brand still carries connotations of support for rich over poor, private sector over public services, business over consumers, individuals over community.
Forget whether such an impression is true or false. What matters is the voters’ perception, since this remains corrosive and must be tackled. Largely this will be done through deed, so it is good to see talk of a resolutely One Nation approach to government. And for those blinkered figures still arguing that red-blooded Conservatism won the day in May, it is worth recalling the Tories had the support of less than one-quarter of registered voters. Party insiders freely admit they were not returned to power on a tidal wave of affection; “It was more a mood of reluctant resignation,” confessed one key player to me.
Few people really see themselves as conservative, trapped by tradition and averse to change. The word implies fearful resistance to innovation and modernity. Besides, the so-called Conservative Party is now far more radical than its floundering opponents; indeed, Labour are the true conservatives as Corbyn harks back to a mythologised past, with his defence of the post-war settlement and desire to enlarge a public sector too often failing those it was designed to help. There is nothing progressive about renationalisation, rent controls, bad schools or a health service with unnecessarily high death rates.
Political parties must evolve to survive. In France, the Right just changed its name: the Union for a Popular Movement has transformed into The Republicans in order to broaden its appeal. We have seen Labour became New Labour, then revert to very old Labour. The Liberals went through a merger, became the Liberal Democrats and now some suggest reversion to the original name in their hour of darkness. Even the Conservatives almost became the Unionists a century ago, while William Hague debated switching to Modern Conservatives during his tenure. A similar idea was also discussed in the early days of Mr Cameron’s leadership, although sadly rejected.
At a recent gathering of ministers and Tory commentators, we talked about whether ‘modernisation’ was a dated term; it ended with laughs and nods of agreement that perhaps the problem word was ‘Conservative’. The big question, of course, is what would replace this venerable name to showcase a party on the Right that wants to reshape society rather than live in fear of the future?
Robert Halfon, the party’s deputy chairman, proposed changing to The Workers’ Party. But this sounds dated, like some tedious Trotskyite fringe group, as well as being unconvincing for the electorate. So what about the One Nation Party, neatly linking past and present? Others have proposed National, Progressive, Radical or Freedom Party. Or there could be a national contest to come up with a new name. One thing is certain: if French conservatives can rebrand themselves, it should not be beyond their British cousins to do the same.