Sunday, 17 May 2015

Celebrating soft loo paper conservatives - a critique of the "Good Right"


During the recent election there were - as the opinion polls seemed reluctant to shift in the Conservative Party's favour - voices that criticised the campaign strategy and messaging. Most notably Tim Mongomerie who railed against the narrow focus of the campaign and argued that the simple messaging on the economy, welfare and taxes was missing the real concerns of British people.

The reduction of politics to a few simplified messages - repeated endlessly can work in a campaign against a weak opponent but it can't be a governing philosophy.
The problem is that the circumstance of that messaging - the relentless 'long term economic plan' and the idea of rewarding 'hard work' - is absolutely within the context of a campaign. And the first rule of campaigns is that you have to win them. Having a great message, slick organisation and support amongst the great and good is pretty useless if the other side wins - if you're not sure about this ask Neil Kinnock.

I suspect that Tim Montgomerie, in crafting his critique, did so at least in part as an exercise in what us marketers call positioning. At the time it didn't look like the Conservatives were going to win the election - the polling showed the main parties neck and neck, the insurgency of UKIP was damaging the Tories and it looked like the limpet-like nature of the Liberal Democrats would see them holding a load of seats the poll ratings said they should lose. So Montgomerie's critique positioned his "Good Right" argument away from the core of the campaign, away from that simple messaging and the drumming repetition of a choice few slogans.

And I guess that, with Montgomerie and others proved wrong about the election results, it's quite understandable for the architect of that Conservative overall majority to have a celebratory dig at those who criticised his campaign. A campaign that was a vindication for the argument that winning an election is about making people's choice simpler - a binary choice. In this case between 'competence and chaos', between Cameron and Miliband, between a Conservative government and one led by Labour. It may be the case that such things as Montgomerie's 'Good Right' proposes are a sound basis for a future Conservative agenda (although I'd note that if it's just "extending home ownership, cutting taxes for the low-paid, renewing the infrastructure of the north and building world class public services" then we've just elected a government on an agenda to do just that) but getting all wonkish about policy is a sure fire way to lose an election - especially when it involves the sort of crass segmentation beloved of the Labour party.

I have something of a problem with Montgomerie's 'Good Right'. Firstly it's because it implies that the regular sort of right isn't good - that if we question above average rises in minimum wages as bad for job creation or challenge the idea that luxury goods taxes are a good idea then we are bad people. But mostly the problem with the 'Good Right' is that it sees the solution solely through the prism of progressive government intervention positioning the party as a sort of blue rinsed version of Blair's New Deal. And, with its ringfencing of revenues, and centralised "needs-based assessments" to move money to deserving places, it owes more to modern technocratic government than to any moral argument for Conservative ideas.

When I was a student there was a group of Conservatives who wanted our manifesto for election to the student union council to be about services to students rather than the more regular fare of undergraduate politics. We dismissed this group as 'soft loo paper conservatives' - more bothered with such things as the opening hours of the canteen, the stocking of the bars and the provision of discounted dry-cleaning than with the grand affairs of the day (and the latest excuse for a boycott, a sit-in or a lecture strike).

Looking back I see that this group - the soft loo paper Tories - were far more in tune with real conservatism than the rest of us. After all the purpose of government shouldn't be grand sweeping (upsetting) change but the good administration of the services people want government to provide. And we do this knowing that, left to their own devices, people are pretty much able to run their own lives without agents of government to guide them in their choices. Even better - and unlike government - those people will be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial helping make their world richer, happier and more fun.

It seems to me that Lynton Crosby's simple message that Conservatives know what they're doing and can carry on getting the economy fixed while reducing the welfare burden and maintaining health funding is merely that 'soft loo paper' argument writ large. We don't need to set out a precise and detailed blueprint for the government's agenda merely to demonstrate competence and provide a direction that sees service quality improving (and hopefully the price of those services dropping).

Finally if there's a need to demonstrate how the right is morally justified - to promote a 'Good Right' - then it should lie in making the case for free enterprise, challenging the demonising of profit and arguing that property rights underpin our civilisation. Gathering a collection of centrist interventions and badging them as "good" completely ignores the moral basis for lower taxes, the case for decentralising decision-making, the rightness of private initiative in every aspect of life, and the wrongness of the left's nationalising of compassion. If as Tim Montgomerie suggests we need a 'governing philosophy' then let's not make it a sort of half-cooked social democracy, let's make it conservatism.

A while back I wrote this - by way of a felt conservatism:

In Bingley Rural – five villages in the South Pennines – there aren’t many millionaires. The roads aren’t cluttered with flash cars, we don’t have fancy wine bars or posh boutiques, the merchant banker is most definitely a foreign beast – but we are pretty conservative. We like the place as it is, we like the features of the villages, the pubs, the farm shops, the butcher, we enjoy the company of neighbours and friends and we want to work. We love the setting and the country around us.

What we ask of our government is pretty simple – protection from crime, good schools and skilled doctors, helping keep the place clean, maintaining the roads, pavements and parks, providing support – when needed – to those in need and preserving the good things about the places. We don’t ask for lectures about “climate change”, about drinking and smoking, what kind of car we drive or holiday we take.

When I knock on doors and talk to local folk, they don’t ask me about the carbon footprint of Easyjet or the need to ban booze advertising. People don’t mention ‘gross national happiness’ or the equalities agenda. What they ask is why the pubs are going bust, how expensive basic staples – food and fuel - have got, how they never see a copper and why their son can’t afford a house in the village.

Simple, easy-to-understand things concerned with the place we live, with keeping it nice, with making it better – conservative things.

Soft loo paper.

No comments: