Growing the grassroots

Friday, March 4, 2016
Alistair Thompson


Alistair Thompson offers three policies to help rebuild the broken Conservative coalition

The last five years have been fascinating for political anoraks like me. We have watched as the tensions between the left of the Lib Dems and right of the Conservative Party have risen to the surface, then quickly dissipated. But the fear, prior to the election, was that some form of coalition government would take the reins on 8th May. The Conservative victory begs a question. Why was Margaret Thatcher able to win three successive elections, while John Major polled more than 14 million votes in 1992? 

The answer is simple. While the formal cross-party Coalition deal was a relatively new innovation, the Conservative Party itself has been a coalition its entire history, reforming itself and swallowing up interest groups and ideologies for the last 200 years or so. It is this ‘big tent’ approach that ensured conservativism was refreshed and renewed and its most political embodiment the Conservative Party dominated Westminster.

Despite the election victory, Mr Cameron and his supporters may not understand this, and they are lukewarm on the need to expand the reach and appeal of the Party. It’s not as if Mr Cameron was uncommitted to ‘modernisation’, but his plans were mere gimmickry, more focused on the photo op than serious reforms aimed at addressing issues such as the housing crisis. And by using Tony Blair’s triangulation strategy it invariably concentrated on winning over left-wing voters, while ignore those on the right. The second problem I would highlight is that, as Mr Cameron moved the Party on issues such as gay marriage, driving women into jobs, and the continuation of unpopular wars while traditional Christian around the globe were being butchered, he left increasingly large numbers of traditional Tories outside the Conservative tent. Half a century ago there was no viable alternative to mainstream politics and the two main parties hoovered up around 95 per cent of the vote. Today they jointly score barely 65 per cent as they compete against a range of alternatives. Deliberately antagonising social conservative has simply sparked an exodus, as the millions of people who voted for Ukip in May demonstrated. 

So what are the policies that can enlarge the Conservative coalition, and reach out to those voters who put both Lady Thatcher and Sir John into No 10? I suggest three ideas.

A conscience clause to protect those with traditional beliefs
Introducing a conscience clause, would be a way of drawing a line under the war that has been raging between social Conservatives, traditional Christians and orthodox Jews and the Party since 2010. Michael Gove recently wrote passionately on this subject, and he was right when he said Christians were increasingly being viewed with utter contempt or worse as something akin to child abusers. But Mr Gove and Mr Cameron have been as guilty in pushing an aggressive secular agenda that has done huge damage to this group. The introduction of the socalled ‘British values’ agenda has done little to tackle extremism, but has given carte blanche to the forces of political correctness to target Christian and Jewish schools, attacking them for their traditional beliefs.

One example of this lunacy involves a small Christian school in Reading, which was downgraded for not having other religious leaders such as an imam leading their Christian assemblies. Another, Grindon Hall School in Sunderland, tops the area’s A-level league table and was the runner up for GCSEs. It was downgraded by Government inspectors because those attending “didn’t know what lesbians do” and had failed to celebrate festivals from other religions. It’s not just Christian schools that have felt the full force of the State’s PC apparatus. Under the last Government, lawyers were briefed to oppose the British Airways worker Nadia Eweida, who refused to remove a small cross she wore. The case ended in the European Court of Human Rights, despite the PM telling Parliament that he supported her right to wear a cross.

Now to top this off, a Government-funded quango has taken legal action against a Northern Ireland company, Asher’s Bakery, for refusing to produce a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage message for a political campaign group. The £30 cake, which was purchased from a nearby baker, looks set to cost the taxpayer around £40,000 in legal fees and the family who runs the bakery a similar amount.

Bring back right-to-buy and boost house building
Whether we like it not, we have a housing crisis, a crisis that is relegating a generation of young people to a life as tenants, coughing up hundreds or thousands of pounds every month with nothing to show for it at the end of the year. In 1970, there were 287,310 new houses built in England, compared to just 133,650 between 2013 and 2014. One reason why these numbers have tumbled has been the collapse in local authority building. In 1970, councils built around 130,000 homes; between 2013/14, fewer than two thousand were built. Housing associations, the organisations that control much of the country’s social housing stock, built just 24,000 homes in 2013. The upshot of this has been a crisis that has progressively worsened over the last 30 years. Now the Left would have you believe that the crisis has been caused by the right to buy. This, of course, is nonsense. After all the two million homes sold under right to buy are still being used, they have not suddenly disappeared from face of the planet. 

The failure has been not to invest the proceeds from the sale of these houses into building new houses to cope with the pressures of immigration and changing family units. The only way to start to address this is to extend to right to buy to cover all housing associations properties, not just those built or transferred after 1997. The money raised would then be reinvested into new developments. But even this does not go far enough. Some experts have suggested going further and extending it to the private sector. While I don’t support this sort of universal extension, the Government must work closely with the larger landlords, such as Grainger PLC, which owns 13,000 properties in the UK, to encourage them to invest in new build, while disposing of their older stock. It should also introduce incentives for larger landlords to extend shared equity schemes. Polling suggests that this policy would be popular among the young and C2 voters, helping to create a genuinely aspirational message for two groups who have been allowed to drift away. 

A moral foreign policy
Finally, introducing a moral foreign policy. The sad fact is that our current stance on a range of international issues is short term and displays a breathtaking
lack compassion. A direct consequence of the lack of compassion has been the continuation of the systematic eradication of Christian communities around the world. More than 100,000 believers died for their faith every year of the last decade, more than a million in total, with many more facing violence, harassment and imprisonment. And while there are those who say this is a job for the international community, that requires leadership and vision, both of which seem in short supply in the FCO. Just look at the abject failure of our policy in Syria.

A short while ago the UK wanted to arm and support insurgents in that country in bringing down the Assad regime.  We ignored the fact that the insurgents were already beating and harassing Christians, which succeeded in driving all of the Coptic Christians into the arms of Assad. Astonishingly, had it not been for the intervention of Vladimir Putin, the UK, US and France would have handed the key to that country to Islamic State. Mr Cameron quickly followed this failure by refusing to take in more Christian refugees from that country, handing Nigel Farage another platform from which to attack the Conservative Party on immigration - this time from the left.

So while enlarging the appeal of the Party does not seem to feature highly on the agenda of Mr Cameron any more, this decision will have to be revisited. We must rebuild our support base, which is narrower than at any time since the Second War.

Alistair Thompson is the Managing Director of Media Intelligence Partners. 

This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 04/03/2016.