Lecture to the 1900 Club and the Centre for Policy Studies
“The Future of Conservatism”
Robert Halfon MP
Monday 9 October 2017
The Oxford and Cambridge Club
Harlow and Workers
It is good to be here this evening.
I am here not just because of my long friendship with Howard Flight – he is even a patron of Harlow Conservatives, but because I feel I am amongst friends.
If any one wonders what has shaped my politics in recent years, it is Harlow. It is a wonderful place where I have made my home since 2000 and fought five General Elections since being selected as a candidate.
But it can be tough too.
Not so long ago, a woman came up to me when I was handing out leaflets outside Tesco. She said to me:
“Oh Mr Halfon, I have to say, I have had one of your leaflets through my letter box.
How handsome you appeared. But, I have to say you look bloody awful in real life!”
The truth is that Harlow has reshaped my Conservatism; a New Town in Essex with the Tory virtues of aspiration, opportunity, the ethics of individual effort, hard work, the genius and entrepreneurialism of small businesses and the self employed. It is a place of patriotism and tradition and of Brexit too. In essence, it is the home of White Van Conservatism.
But Harlow is also a place of community and of economic struggle too. It is a new Town originally built so that people from the East of London could build better lives. It is a town where there is significant deprivation – low economic capital but high levels of social capital, where people who do the right thing still struggle to keep their heads above water, and both spouses or partners are working day and night, often on low pay. They live in housing that should be of higher quality.
These men and women need and deserve a better standard of living – but they want something else too: welfare services that work.
So, they know that if their family fall ill they will be looked after by the NHS, that their grandparents will be able to afford their winter fuel bills, that when they walk home from the bus or train station they will be free from anti-social behaviour or worse. That they have a real chance to live in quality housing – whether it is social housing or right to buy. That they will be able to go to a local school of their choice, providing a decent school for their children with free school meals, or that their son or daughter will be able to do a quality Apprenticeship, or go to University without facing mountains of debts.
They are also compassionate towards others, often involved in a range of community groups, whether it be the local scouts or neighbourhood organisations. They believe that the welfare state should, on the one side, truly incentivise work and stop dependency and, on the other, be truly compassionate to the most vulnerable, especially the disabled and elderly. not treating millions of people like digits on a computer.
None of this is rocket science, yet is so often forgotten by our party and our government. I call all of this practical Workers Conservatism, where social and economic capital go hand in hand.
The intellectuals and technocrats
On the one side, many Tories are working out the intellectual basis of free markets and capitalism and forget how Conservatism must practically apply to real people, leading real lives. I am always amazed when I hear of those talking abstractly about the merits of capitalism, totally removed from the lives of most of our fellow countrymen and women. For example, those who say the promotion of social housing is wrong despite one in four families not even having £95 in savings, with monthly net earnings of less than £1,500 a month.
On the other, our party offers one technocratic ‘solution’ after another, devoid of human understanding or without any emotional connection; a series of clothes pegs without any washing line.
No narrative, no explanation, no reasoning and no relation to the lives of millions of workers.
Take the example of Universal Credit, a potentially good reform. This is rolled out with little explanation or narrative behind it and implemented in such a way that this reform is seen as a ‘cut’ because ‘the computer says no’’ to people who are just digits on a machine, ignoring the hardship through the six-week period it takes to receive the first payment. Or ‘the bedroom tax’, named as such because the Government, instead of setting out a passionate case about overcrowding and poor quality housing, and reminding Labour that they had introduced the very same policy for private tenants when they were in power, decided to call this benefit change ‘the spare room subsidy’. In doing so, it allowed the left to claim the moral high ground, especially when exemptions for disabled people were mired in bureaucratic red tape via their local council.
Is it any wonder that the left claims the monopoly of compassion?
So, I am not here this evening to give you an intellectual basis for Capitalism. Nor to set out detailed policy prescriptions that will allegedly win us victory.
I am here to suggest something different, to set out a whole new radical narrative and message for the Conservatives, and fundamental reform of our party that helps us reconnect emotionally and practically with the British people.
The problems facing Conservatives
But to solve our problems, we first need to acknowledge five truths:
- We have no message or narrative. No one really understands what Conservatism is all about, except in terms of austerity, economics and Brexit.
- Related to our first problem. We have allowed Labour to claim the positive language of compassion. The words social justice, welfare, NHS, compassion, low pay, the poor, poverty and the underdog are all associated with the left. I remember as a Minister I was not allowed to use the word social justice as the ‘in word’ was ‘social mobility’, which to me always sounded like a Vodafone Television advertisement.
- Our electoral performance has been wanting. We have not won a healthy Conservative majority since 1987. Even after the years of Gordon Brown, we had a coalition. After Miliband a tiny majority. After 2017, none at all. The argument about the popular vote being the highest is illusory if we pile up votes in Epping but lose swathes of votes in Chingford, making this a marginal seat.
- The idea that we are winning working class votes is mixed. Even if Conservatives won some working class seats because of Brexit, there are plenty of marginal working class seats we lost as well.
Even if the working class voters narrative is true, who is to say they will remain Conservative next time if they feel that the party has back-slided over Brexit and the divorce bill too high? Where is the guarantee that they will stay with the Conservatives after Brexit is completed, even if they were supportive of the deal. Why would they not go back to Labour?
Moreover, as pollster Peter Kellner has pointed out, our support from women has declined, especially from full time female workers and those in their thirties, many of whom work in the public services, hit by pay restraint. We all know that our support from the younger generation is nothing short of a calamity.
- Not only do we have an ever declining membership but our party grassroots infrastructure is so bad that if health and safety inspections were in play, they would have closed it down a long time ago.
The Workers Party
Having said all of this, to paraphrase Golda Meir:
“pessimism is a luxury that no Conservative can allow himself”
I do believe that there are answers to Conservatism’s revival. But it needs radical, not incremental, change.
It does not matter whether it is Theresa May, or Mother Theresa, Boris Johnson or Boris Gudonov. Unless we make fundamental change, our party will not be able to build the foundations for future success.
We need to have narrative and a framework, and we must have the policies that underpin it.
The Narrative: The Ladder of Opportunity:
First, the narrative:
In my view, there is huge potential here. I’m not a pessimist, despite everything I’ve said. In fact, I’m quite optimistic, I think we can get this right – we have to have the narrative that we are the party of the ladder of opportunity.
I believe in the power of symbols; I believe in simple messaging. It’s very easy for us to explain what that is about. That if you are on lower income, we give you the ladder to get you the skills, to get the education, jobs, security and prosperity that you need.
But this is not just a ladder by itself, it’s a ladder that is grafted by government, it is a ladder that the people are brought to by government, it’s a ladder that has a social ambulance always there at the bottom, ready if people fall off. It’s a ladder that has hands around it, to help people every step of the way.
The Workers Party:
Second, that ladder of opportunity is all about Conservatives being, what I call, the true Workers Party. I believe that we need a fundamental re-brand. The Conservative name is so tarnished and so misrepresented that we need a simple way of explaining to everyone what we are about and that we are on their side.
I also have a vision that our party will actually be not just a Workers party but a real modern Workers’ trade Union movement for the British people.
Now let me go through how I think that pans out. Trade unions have five key roles:
The first is ensuring that workers have skills and jobs.
The second is about workers’ wages.
The third is about workers’ rights.
The fourth is about workers’ welfare.
And the fifth is about workers’ services.
So I think that what we need to do as a party when we say that we’re the party of the ladder, the ladder of opportunity, that we are the Workers’ Party. We need to have our own workers’ charter embodying workers’ skills, workers’ rights, workers’ welfare, workers’ services. That involves our party too.
Let me go into those, bit by bit.
Workers Skills and Jobs
Workers Skills and Jobs must be about our apprenticeship and skills offering, guaranteeing to every young person that Conservatives will offer a quality apprenticeship from 16 years onwards, from Level 2 right up to degree apprenticeships, remembering that ninety percent of apprentices get jobs or further training at the end.
Whilst we can never match Jeremy Corbyn on Tuition Fees, we should show young people the advantages of doing a funded, paid, high quality technical apprenticeship over an expensive, and all-too often low quality degree, many of which result in poor wages after graduation. This would be an important way to show young people that Conservatives are on their side, and that there is a world of opportunity open to them.
This is what we could frame as part of our workers’ charter, developing skills, making sure that people have jobs. It is important to point out that we have more people in work than any time in our island’s history; we have more apprentices, 900,000, than in any time in our history; we have the lowest number of the so-called NEETS, the lowest number of those ‘not in employment or training or education’ on record. So why aren’t we shouting this from the rooftops?
Rewarding workers fairly forms part of the Conservatives’ DNA, and the narrative for lower taxes too. We can convince the public about the morality of tax cuts by cutting taxes for the lower paid and by supporting and strengthening the national living wage.
Tax cuts should be talked about in terms of cutting the cost of living rather than in a way which implies support for the better off over those on lower incomes.
We can convince the public about the morality of tax cuts for big business and the wealthy by becoming the party of Redistribution too. What I mean by that is not socialist redistribution but using the extra tax revenues RAISED by cutting taxes for the rich, and using those revenues to cut taxes for the lower paid or spending it on our poorer communities.
In other words, Conservatives need to reframe the whole tax argument in terms of raising revenues, redistribution and emphasising tax cuts for those on lower incomes. If the argument is moved from tax hikes to revenues raised, it makes it much easier to explain to the public.
Imagine if there was a special Redistribution Fund on the Conservative Party website which showed all the extra tax revenues coming in from corporation tax and the like, and how that money was being spent on the lower paid. It would be called the Conservative Redistribution Fund. At a stroke, it would not only reclaim this important word from the left, it would make the ethical case for tax cuts as a whole.
Workers Rights is perhaps the hardest one of these to develop for Conservatism. The arguments over Uber and zero hours put libertarian conservatives and social justice conservatives in conflict. Uber is not part of a fair free market because black cabs do not have fair competition. They are excessively regulated and have costs that Uber drivers do not have. Conversely, not all zero hour contracts are bad and some people want them whether they are single parents or students. We need to develop a modern Conservative Good Work Act to resolve these issues of exploitation, of workers representation, of fair pay to guarantee fair competition, minimum standards and rights for the self-employed.
Workers Welfare must be an essential component of Conservatism. This includes the NHS, Social Security and Housing.
We get caught in the cycle of people thinking we just want to cut benefits.
The truth is that Tories want to reform welfare to help recipients gain independence and to get people into work. We should be proud of the money we’re spending and not be afraid to talk about this mission.
I can’t remember how many times I have been attacked politically for allegedly supporting cuts to disability spending for example. When I point out that we have increased overall spending up to £50 billion + a year on disability welfare – amongst the highest in the world – it is just met with disbelief.
But who can blame the critics, when welfare is talked about in terms of cuts instead of the social ambulance ready at the ladder, to help those who can’t climb up, or those who fall.
Conservatives need to craft welfare in a narrative to make sure that when our welfare policies are rolled out that people understand – really understand – that we are spending money and that we are there to get people back into work, and provide high quality support to those who need it most.
There is an umbilical cord between the British people and the NHS. Any idea of privatising it is for the birds. But we need to give people more of a say in what kind of NHS they would like.
Given this, perhaps there should be a referendum every few years, at the time of local elections, about the level of funding for the NHS and Social care. The best solution is to explain to the public how much it costs, depending on what level of service they require, and then decide how much they want to spend.
On housing, if we can find £10 billion from the Treasury Sofa for Help to Buy, then perhaps we can find some billions more for social housing. This could be in the form of tax incentives given to housing associations, accompanied by a dramatic liberalisation of planning. We could build hundreds of thousands of houses in which people would live for a decent length of time, before giving them a chance of right to buy, with another house being built to replace it.
So often, Conservatives wrongly think that retail politics is just an auction of promises that we can never win. I have never understood this view. There is nothing to stop the Government developing retail politics of our own, properly costed and thought out, in key areas of policy that are Tory in nature but help solve pressing problems.
Scrapping the hospital car parking tax is one way to show our commitment to the NHS. It would cost a relatively small amount, given the size of the NHS budget. The continued fuel duty freeze gives a signal to millions of motorists that we Conservatives are on their side. Dealing with unfair energy bills improves the cost of living for millions.
Conservatives need workers services retail politics, not to ape Labour, but because this is where the public are. In a consumerist society, the public need to have a clear choice in areas where they are aware there is a problem.
I said at the start that our party, too, has to radically change. If we are to be the Conservative Workers Party, then we have to mean it.
If we are to radically reflect the way people want to join organisations nowadays, we cannot look to the old political parties and how it used to be. Our party, literally, should be a modern trade union.
Conservatives should offer insurance services for people on lower incomes. Our party should give out Fuel cards for members so they would get a discount when they go and get petrol, something many of you know I’m quite passionate about. A bus pass, too, could be offered to young apprentices who join our party.
Tories should be offering the same things that unions offer their members so we can become a competing trade union in a Conservative way for the British people.
Those people who have a Conservative disposition can join our party knowing that they would get the same services offered by other trade unions, if not better. Then you would have thousands of people joining because we would have a government and political movement which is framing the argument in terms of us being the Workers’ Party and in terms of us being the party of the ladder of opportunity.
But being a Modern Trade Union means a democratic political movement too.
A truly democratic, membership-based Conservative Workers Party would be an important step in galvanising current members and persuading existing members to join.
In practice, this would mean the whole of the Party Board, including the Chair of the National Convention, being elected by the membership, not the current system in which they are chosen by a few senior people from each association. The same would apply to the directly-affiliated organisations such as the Conservative Policy Forum. The Board could produce an annual report, just as companies do for their shareholders, which would be adopted or rejected annually by all the members through a vote.
Conference too, should be radically democratised. Our party must move away from just the Politburo-style announcements (“tractor production in the Soviet Union has gone up by 50 per cent this year”).
I remember going to conference during the time of Margaret Thatcher when motions for conference would be selected by associations and debated. The Government of the day was still able to get their core message across – and win elections.
Why not do the same now, with members voting online about which issues are chosen for debate at both the Spring and Winter Conferences? In terms of selecting parliamentary candidates, this could continue to be done through primaries (although this can offer an unfair advantage to a well connected local candidate) – or an electoral college consisting of the local association members (60 per cent), the public (20 per cent) and CCHQ representation (20 per cent).
Of course, the first objection to democratisation is to point at Corbyn’s Labour and express concerns about ‘infiltration’ or about ‘undesirables’ elected to positions. This shows a misunderstanding of what the 600,000 Labour members are all about.
But this can be easily dealt with.
The answer is simple: paying a full membership fee of £25 would give a member full participatory rights, with less expensive fees being charged for non-voting membership. There would of course be concession rates for certain groups on lower incomes, as there are at the moment. As a final check and balance, if infiltration, malpractice, reputational damage et al had occurred, the Prime Minister, Party Chairman, or the Board could have a final veto.
I know that democratisation of the Tory party is not the only solution to increasing our membership base. A proper national membership offering, rocket-boosting candidate bursaries, expenses for lower income members to get involved at senior level, a radical and simplified message and symbol (yes – the ladder of opportunity), that all Conservatives can unite behind, are just a few of things that could be done.
Millions should also be spent on a proper social media operation where so much of the political battle is now fought.
But what is the point if, when Conservatives do finally get people to join, the latter realise they have no real say in making their new party one that works for everyone? They won’t remain members for long.
One final point before I conclude. Going on about Venezuelan socialism may delight Conservatives in the Westminster village but it means little to most ordinary voters. Although I am a politician with a Ronseal type brain (it does what it says on the tin) and dislike political jargon, we need to do what Merkel and the CDU describe as Asymmetric demobilisation (whatever the recent result, Merkel is still the most successful Centre Right Leader of the 21st Century). That means ignoring the opposition but taking the best parts of their policies and crafting them in a Conservative way. The aim being to deliberately lower the turnout of opposition minded floating voters. Let the media do the rough and tumble of opposition bashing. Every time the Conservatives engage in old fashioned opposition attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, all we do is advance their cause.
For the past few years, I have being going around the country speaking to Conservative Associations, saying that we were under-estimating Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, and that the 650,000 Labour members were not all Trotskyites but well-meaning individuals inspired by the romantic and noble socialist ideals of helping the underdog.
It is time for us Conservatives to develop a romantic and ethical message of our own, recognising that we need radical change if we are to inspire millions of people to vote Tory: not just with their heads because of the economy, but with their hearts too. Unless we do so, I believe that we will never get the strong majority that our country needs.
IN THE MEDIA
- The Times – The Conservatives must become the worker’s party, says Robert Halfon
- The Guardian – Tarnished Tories must undergo radical reform, says former minister
- City AM – Former minister Robert Halfon calls for reform, says Conservatives “have no message”