The Tories have gone astray – and I helped (The Telegraph)

CPS Board Member George Bridges writes in The Daily Telegraph that ever since 1997, the Conservative Party has put strategy above principle, with disastrous results.

To read the full article, visit the Telegraph website

Are you one of those who thinks that there isn’t much to choose between the political parties these days? Are you crying out for politicians who say what they believe, rather than what they want people to hear? Well, I have a confession to make. I have spent much of my career in the political backroom, out of camera shot, out of sight. First a researcher for the Conservative Party machine, then a tour of duty in the bunker of No 10 for the last three Major years, followed by a few years advising Michael Howard and David Cameron.

This was a period in which the Conservative Party had a political nervous breakdown, was committed, had care in the community, and then found its feet again. My scars, my mistakes? Too many to mention. But the greatest mistake of all was my silence. I sat there as the culture of politics changed. And I did nothing.

Before I go any further, let me be clear. The men and women with whom I worked were – are – Conservative to the core. Conservatism courses through their veins. Yet during the Nineties all of us, and the entire political class, became hooked on a new drug, a new line in “retail politics”: to treat voters as a retailer treats consumers, constantly tweaking what was offered to meet changing trends, minutely analysing opinion polls and focus groups to pick off the voter in the marginal constituency. As political parties became “brands”, their principles were reduced to “attributes”. Just as Heinz may change the level of salt, the label or the price of a can of baked beans, political parties began to ditch or adopt policies to suit the public taste, day by day, week by week.

How we laughed in No 10 when Tony Blair agreed with Bill Clinton that “the most important person in the world is the member of a focus group”. I even inserted a joke about it into a speech John Major gave before the red hordes massacred us in 1997. But after the deluge, the Blairite approach to politics became accepted wisdom. Strategy and narrative were in, principle and conviction were out.

Now don’t misunderstand me. Opinion research is critical in politics, but only if it is used to tell a politician how to communicate, not what to believe – a point Lynton Crosby, the election guru who will advise the Tories’ 2015 campaign, repeats ad infinitum. It provides a map and a compass, but the leader must set the direction. Before 1997, we certainly did too little of it. But politicians who are guided by polls are chasing will-o’-the-wisp in a forlorn search for popularity. They are not selling baked beans, but something more complex: vision, belief and leadership. And the more politicians change to reflect every passing fad, the less the public believes what they say, and will-o’-the-wisp flits away.

To read the full article, visit the Telegraph website

Date Added: Wednesday 21st November 2012