In a way I was one of the first modern Tory modernisers. In 1995 I said “No change, no chance”, and called for new policies and new approaches to Conservative politics. The party opted for no change, and went down a very large defeat.
In opposition a group of people developed a modernising agenda. Some of it made a lot of sense. They said the party has to be comfortable in modern Britain, and not think it can put the social clock back to the 1950s. They were happy to have a liberal economic agenda as I favour, as long as there was a more liberal social agenda too. In political terms the aim was to reach out to new voters and to voters for parties of the centre left, to build a Conservative majority. Subject to careful choice of socially liberal measures and how far that went, this could have worked as an election winning strategy. A well judged reduction in political correctness, leaving people freer to run their own lives, would be welcome and popular.
Unfortunately the strategy developed harsh edges, at a time when the aim was stated to be make the Conservatives more cuddly and likeable. Some exponents decided that the traditional Conservatives had nowhere else to go, so they could briefed against, left out in the cold or otherwise badly treated. Some of the positive measures of the modernising strategy, like the emphasis on climate change theory and the more recent approach to single sex marriage, caused adverse reactions amongst many Conservatives , making the party look split rather than modern.
The strategy also rested on highlighting issues that have been traditional strong suits of the left, and ignoring or playing down issues like the EU, law and order and tax cuts where Conservatives have fared better in the past. The Conservatives failed to break through in 2001, and failed to win an outright victory in 2010 despite substantial modernising steps. Some say Consevatives lost because the party modernised too much in the wrong way, others say the party did not win because it still had not modernised enough.
In the last three years there has been a great opportunity for the modernisers to show their strategy working, as around half the voters who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 are currently no longer prepared to vote for their old party for a variety of reasons. The government modernising agenda of green energy, same sex marriage, increased overseas aid, the concentration on issues like health and schools rather than tax cuts, the EU and law and order should have been able to attract some of those departing Lib Dems, yet most of them have gone elsewhere. Meanwhile that same agenda has clearly driven numerous voters in the most recent Coucnil elections to vote UKIP instead of Conservative.
Conservative opinion ratings have gone up when the PM has vetoed the Fiscal treaty, cut the EU budget , set a cap on total welfare payments to each family and made other commitments to welfare reform. In the days ahead I will look at how the Conservative party could come up with an agenda that suits many traditional Conservatives, whilst also showing that the party can reach out to people who have not voted for it for many years, and to younger people who have never voted for it.