Saturday, 7 October 2017

Let's stop watering down Corbyn's policies and offer a property-owning democracy again

There is a modicum of welcome introspection within my party. Questions about our values, purpose and mission are mixed in with less considered and more tactical debates about getting more support from young people or responding to what Brexit (and Corbyn) "means". Alongside this is a discussion about organisation - whether the party has the structure, membership and organisation to take a positive message to the electorate.

For me, and the apparent success of Corbyn's populism doesn't change this fact, the answer doesn't lie in contention or extremes but rather in consensus and moderation. Don't misunderstand me here, this isn't a rejection of ideology, but rather a recognition that policies drawn from our belief in freedom, community, neighbourliness and self-reliance have to chime with the values of people who we want to vote for us.

So let's start with those values rather than - as we see here from David Skelton - an approach based on opinion polling - little better than a list of bribes (higher minimum wages, housing subsidies, free tuition) aimed at attracting support. This is what we mean when we talk of populism and is precisely the programme that Corbyn espouses - rail nationalisation has big opinion poll support so we propose rail nationalisation. Students say they want free tuition so we give them free tuition. All paid for through another solidly opinion poll tested plan - increasing taxes on big business and "the rich".

What Skelton proposes is a return to what was once called Butskellism, a policy platform based on trying to have as close a policy platform to the other side as possible without quite abolishing any difference. Here's an example:
A reformed Toryism could address the growing disparity between capital and labour and encourage firms to empower their workers with shares and board representation. But that shouldn’t obscure the need for higher wages. The minimum wage should be increased when possible, and companies above a certain size should be expected to report on how they are moving towards paying the voluntary living wage (£8.45 in the UK and £9.75 in London).
If I'd replaced the first three words here with "a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn" no-one would have batted an eyelid. What we have is a policy platform founded on wording current Labour policies slightly differently and calling it "reformed Toryism":
a new generation of genuinely affordable, low-rent homes,

reducing tuition fees and concentrating the greatest attention on those from poorer backgrounds

hindered by cuts to in-work benefits and anti-trade union rhetoric.
All of this is good stuff but it does not give a single young person (or indeed older person) a solitary reason to switch from voting Labour to voting Conservative. All Skelton - and too many others on the left of my Party - is saying is "be more like Labour by proposing toned down versions of their policies".

So let's start instead with these values:
Wherever you go in the world you'll find people who hold as important such things as family, neighbourliness, independence, duty and effort. That you should work hard, contribute, look out for the neighbours, bring up your family as honest, self-reliant and care for those less fortunate.

And these are conservative values, the building blocks of community. None of them are about government, large or small. None of them see society as greater than the sum of its individual parts. And none of them are predicated on knowing better what is good for your neighbour.
Let's frame a policy platform beginning with the communities we want to represent rather than with centrally-directed proposals determined by opinion-polling. Let's talk about community, about how health, social care, good jobs and much else start with the places we live in rather than with the Bank of England, International Monetary Fund and National Health Service. I like it when Skelton talks about people having a stake, although he makes the mistake of talking about "the economy" rather than "society". As conservatives we need to renew the offer we made repeatedly - in 1959, 1970, 1979 and 1992 - do the right thing, play your part, get an education, work hard and you will have a stake in society. Right now overpriced housing, the pillage of pension funds and disincentives to invest mean that people, especially younger people, struggle to see how they're to get that stake in society - the real cash stake we all believe we were offered.

I'm pretty sure this means some tough choices about policy but we start by renewing the offer - to everyone - of a property-owning democracy. To get there we've to have some tricky converstaions about green belts, care for the elderly and the balance between taxing what we earn and taxing what we spend. We've to embrace the idea of family again - not as some sort of mythical Oxo advert image but the messy, complicated and varied things that are the reality of our lived experience as families. And, above all, we need to start talking about community and getting the decisions about care, health and social support down to that basic building block. You only need look at the benefits system - which can't process a claim in less than seven weeks leading directly to destitution - to see how centralised, national systems really don't work.

I've said before that we should start, as conservatives, with caring about what's right outside our door. It's dull, I know - soft loo paper conservatism as a university colleague called it - but most people are not either interesting in or impressed by fancy dan utopian solutions. Don't get me wrong, we'll respond to a straightforward bribe - free stuff paid for by taxing anonymous others - but conservatives have usually been better than this and, when we are, we change the world for the better.

We won't win by offering watered down versions of Corbyn's policies but by renewing the offer we made to my generation - an offer that was met - of creating a property-owning democracy. Let's do it.


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