Saturday, 6 September 2014

Why part of the Conservative Party's soul is in Jaywick (and Cullingworth)


There is, I'm told, a battle raging over the soul of the Conservative Party. This week's Spectator (which I've yet to read) splashes 'Tory Split' across the front cover. And I'm confused because I simply don't see the split. Maybe I'm wilfully blind, too tribal to notice the terrible divisions that stand out for left-wing pundits like Andrew Rawnsley and Polly Toynbee.

But if there's a battle over the Party's soul perhaps it would be a good idea to try and understand what that 'soul' is all about? Neither of our left-wing pundits are remotely qualified to do this - their understanding of the Conservative Party and conservatism is limited (which makes their penchant for parading their ignorance rather entertaining). Talking about the Corn Laws or Empire Preference doesn't help unless you're planning a sixth form history essay and neither does trying to portray the 'eurosceptic' right as some sort of Tory version of the Militant Tendency.

Instead we should try to understand that the divisions aren't about economics. Nobody in the Conservative Party disagrees with our support for essentially liberal economic policies and, more importantly, with the view that it is business, commerce and industry that provides our wealth not government. The most pinko Tory Reform Group member will accept that as an essential tenet of conservatism, as something setting us apart from socialists and social democrats.

So rather than economic disagreement, we need to look instead at social and cultural differences - the distinction between working class and lower middle class values and the values of an urban cultural elite. It is here that we can perceive division - it isn't David Cameron's words that agitate but the suspicion that he doesn't understand. This division isn't simply a problem for the Conservative Party but represents a wider division in society. The split is reflected in Matthew Parris's article about Clacton where his distaste for the tastes of that seaside town's residents is so palpable. But Parris's rant simply captures the same spirit that blames McDonalds for obesity, bans cheap lager and turns its nose up at plastic reindeer and the X-Factor.

What UKIP has done successfully is tap into the dissatisfaction with the cultural direction of the Conservative Party that Parris's article champions - it is the grumpy bloke in the saloon bar transformed into a political movement. That grumpy bloke articulates a set of gut feelings - too many immigrants have changed the place, gays are odd (usually accompanied by bad "jokes" about not bending over), that we 'don't make anything any more' and anyhow the country is going to the dogs.

Yesterday I was talking to a Cullingworth native - one of the sort who make a village a village having been born here to parents who themselves were born here. This resident ranted about how people move into the village, buy a nice house and then want speed humps everywhere - "don't they know it's a village" was the conclusion. This is the problem for that London-based elite - they simply don't understand how someone can be three generations in a village and see nothing better than knowing that will become four, five and six generations. And that such people really don't want a great deal to change about the place they live.

If, because we have no cultural point of reference (and this is Matthew Parris's problem, I suspect) we decide that the opinions of people in Clacton or Cullingworth are best ignored then what we do is create the opportunity for others to come along and take advantage - here in Bradford we had the BNP and down in Clacton they have UKIP. Now UKIP are a sight better than the BNP but have still adopted the process of deciding policies based on that grumpy old bloke's gut feeling rather than on the basis of his culture.

If we listen to the UKIP supporter we'll hear an interesting analysis of why they aren't in the Tory Party. And I don't mean Douglas Carswell's slightly self-serving explanation but the typical UKIP member. This person will tell you that they don't trust politicians, that they're all the same and that government is filled with people who want to stop them doing and saying the things they want to do and say. That UKIP supporter won't have a consistent political philosophy (any more than the typical Labour or Conservative supporter does) but so far as it goes it is essentially a set of views that should fit perfectly well inside the Conservative Party. Indeed, as Cullingworth's MP demonstrates, they do fit just fine in the Party.

None of this means the Conservative Party should go back on things like gay marriage but it is to say that we need a dialogue with the people our party was set up to serve - ordinary working men and women. And this means talking about the things that really bother those people. Some of that's already in place - the economic recovery and associated jobs growth is what ordinary people want to see and the decision to focus tax cuts on the least well off is also great (although sad that we needed our Libe Dem partners to oush us there).

But we now need to look as closely at some of those cultural things - there's a lot to be gained by defending working class pleasures like gambling, a pint down the local and the full fish supper with extra bread and butter.  Instead of harking to the incessant chitter of the London media with its obsessing about nannies, the latest health fad and house prices, we should listen to a different Britain.

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin describe the UKIP-inclined voter as being of a Britain 'left behind' which rather echoes Matthew Parris's view (although it's not meant that way, I'm sure).  Ford & Goodwin's analysis is helpful here since they noticed that the UKIP demographic isn't the core Conservative demographic - it's less well off, less well-educated and concentrated in places that have seen a steady decline over recent times regardless of the nation's economic performance. It shouldn't be a surprise to us that the Clacton seat includes the country's most deprived ward.

What should surprise us is that these places - seaside towns like Clacton, slightly crusty rural exurbia - haven't become places where Labour voting is the norm. Jaywick - that most deprived place near Clacton - has a Conservative County Councillor. This is because Labour became the party of the inner city, the champion of the politically correct and the enthusiast for "don't do that, you mustn't do that, we'll stop people doing that, that is wrong".

If the Conservative Party wants to find its soul again, it will do so by stepping back from the idea - snatched from the trendy left - of judgemental social action, from the world of nudge and control. Instead of  trying to out social engineer the left, we should start with how things are and provide for people those things that they actually want. Above all the Party could stop aping the left and begin to treat the working class and lower middle class as regular human beings rather than as a set of folk to alternately patronise and indulge as if they were some sort of meercat colony.

The Conservative Party stopped being the party of the rich in the 1990s and became a party for the middling sort working in the private sector. The party - probably for reasons of financial sustainability - has tried to chase itself back into the pockets of metropolitan wealthy sorts but perhaps (for reasons of winning elections) it should consider its original mission and address its policy-making and campaigning to improving the condition of the ordinary people. In the end that is where the soul of the Conservative Party lives - in the idea of nation, in the concept of duty and in the view that we should give people the tools to be independent, self-reliant and rooted in community.

When Matthew Parris writes about the Derbyshire Dales or about the hills of Catalonia you get a sense that he loves these places, that they and the people who live there, matter to him. What he needs to do is see that the same is true about Clacton - it might not be for him but for the folk that love the town it's more than home it's a place to be proud of. Rather than suggest Clacton is finished, we should rather say that we want to help those who love the place find a new purpose and a new future for the town. For me that is the defining characteristic of being a Conservative - that love of the ordinary, the regular and the place we live. That and a continuation of that mission - improving the lives of those ordinary people.



Woodsy42 said...

Maybe Clacton has found a new purpose, to lead the country in changing the political status quo?

Lysistrata said...

Excellent piece which ought to be compulsory reading for all MetroCons! Thank you again for your thoughtful writing.

Don't know if you have visited the "Old photos of Bradford" Facebook page, but you probably should. I joined it fairly recently. The comments are EXACTLY what you are describing here: the aspirations of ordinary Bradford people (including 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants) and their love for their locality and their grieving about loss and change.

If you can't access it, please pm or email me and I shall try to invite you - it recently became a closed group largely, I believe, because it has shot up rapidly to over 12,000 members.

Pat Nurse MA said...

It's simple - so simple #WeSmokeWeVote and we are fed up of being bullied, shoved around, targeted by over paid bureaucrats in quangos and we see no difference on this issue between Tories, the Limp Dumps and Labour.

The Tories have given some of us no choice but to vote for UKIP because they are treating us like scum.

#EnoughsEnough For all your great words and analysis, it is that simple really. People expect to be treated with respect by their leaders and will fight back hard if they are persecuted.