Michael Gove is right: The Tories need to detoxify their brand
Published by The Guardian (14th March, 2015)
Chief whips tend not to make waves in politics. They are meant to be masters of backroom deals, loyal party operators picked for their ability to push through government policies by any means necessary. Not for nothing did Michael Dobbs choose a chief whip for the sinister central character in the original House of Cards. And this makes Thursday’s passionate speech by Michael Gove, current holder of this post, all the more intriguing.
For this was a bold and much-needed attempt to reclaim compassionate conservatism, a concept that has been battered by five years of austerity government. In his speech, Gove declared that the right had to be ‘warriors for the dispossessed’ and fight for social justice if it was to win arguments and be able to help ‘the vulnerable and the voiceless’. He spoke about the state as an emancipator, about the curse of inequality and the need for moral underpinning of markets.
This was an unusually interesting speech, especially during this dreary runup to a general election struggle between a pair of mainstream parties spooked by poor polls, fast-changing politics and insurgent forces to left and right. Their insecurity has led them to fight drab, uninspiring campaigns. This is especially true for the Tories, who as incumbents are delivering a defensive, managerial message of economic security rather than any sense of mission to change the country. Luckily for them, Labour just looks confused.
Gove was speaking at the launch of the Good Right, a group set up by Tim Montgomerie, founder of the ConservativeHome website, and Stephan Shakespeare, chief executive of YouGov. The organisation originally planned to launch after the election, but after the intervention of a couple of cabinet ministers this was brought forward to influence internal debate over the election manifesto and the reductive campaign masterminded by Lynton Crosby. The Australian campaign chief was, by all accounts, unhappy about the event.
Yet both the speech and the idea of proclaiming conservatism as a progressive force are necessary and timely. The Tory brand remains toxic; it is still seen as a party of the rich that always puts head before heart. This has not been helped by cutting the top rate of tax, by a bedroom tax that impacts cruelly on the poor and people with disabilities, by bungled health reforms and by much of the language on benefit reform and deficit-reduction. Too often the Conservative narrative has implied a desire to simply slash back the state for ideological purposes, an impression exaggerated by the tussles of coalition government.
Despite recent revisionism, the modernisation promoted by David Cameron after he won his party leadership a decade ago was based on ideas to help the most disadvantaged in society. Yes, it was also about the imperative to make a fusty Conservative party reflect the country more accurately in terms of gender, race and sexuality. But the plans were rooted in issues such as responsible capitalism, poverty reduction, devolving power and remoulding the welfare state to help those in most need rather than the middle classes.
These were the issues that excited Mr Cameron, along with myself and many around him at the time. His speeches, such as those given at party conferences, still often reflect this, along with his innate sense of optimism and a raft of coalition policies. But the positive message has been dimmed in government amid the drive to cut government spending, the pressures of daily firefighting and a daft drift to the right to combat the rise of the Ukip misanthropes. Now the Tories are in campaign mode, all we hear is tedious mantras about hardworking families combined with crude jibes at opponents.
Gove was throwing down a gauntlet to both sides of the political spectrum. Clearly the left hates any suggestion of Conservatives as agents for progressive change, and struggles to see the need to support a fair society with sound economics. But he was also challenging those on his own side who loathe the state, defend crony capitalism and ignore corrosive inequality. Meanwhile the Good Right, although too socially conservative, is correctly demanding a much higher minimum wage, investment in infrastructure and limits on political funding.
This is a discourse the electorate deserves to hear during an election. Yet behind the debate lies something fundamental to modern politics. Downing Street strategists argue that an angry electorate is fed up with over-inflated promises from politicians: all those pledges to change the world, end poverty and eliminate inequality. They point to the second Obama presidential campaign, a dour and negative fight to retain the White House by a man who once heralded hope. ‘People don’t trust us and they just want competence,’ said one.
That may be true. The result is that both main parties are fighting flat, constricted and rigidly controlled campaigns. Yet this uninspiring and pessimistic approach only highlights the very problems turning voters off traditional politics in the first place. As one Tory insider said, it is a short-term fix that leads to long-term suicide.