Douglas Carswell

01 JAN 2013

How to modernise

They're right, of course, these modernisers.  We Conservatives must, as the excellent Matthew D'Ancona reminds us, be "broad in appeal and generous in outlook". A national coalition, not a narrow interest group.  In tune with how the country is, not nostalgic for a past that never was.

The trouble is that beyond a handful of generalities – "decontaminate" the brand, more votes in the north, support from minority groups – there never seems to be much specific about how to make it all happen. Maybe modernisation is more than just a PR problem?

Perhaps successive Tory leaders – Hague, Howard, Cameron – have failed to comprehensively modernise the Conservative party because while they knew what change was needed, they  have not always have a detailed sense of how to make it happen?

Here are a few helpful suggestions.

1.  A broader range of candidates drawn from wider backgrounds; Diversity does not mean having the party hierarchy impose shortlists of candidates with identikit views. Real diversity – of background, heritage, outlook, opinion – can best be achieved by giving every local person a direct say over who gets to be their Conservative candidate; proper open primary selection.

We've only ever used proper open primaries on three occasions – to select Boris as our mayoral candidate, then Sarah Wollaston and Caroline Dinenage.  In their different ways, these have proved to be three remarkably good choices. Imagine if we were to select every candidate that way? Too expensive? Nonsense. It could be done without costing the taxpayer a penny extra.

2.  Surf the wave of anti-politics; Like it or not, anti-politics is one of the defining characteristic of the electorate in contemporary Britain. A modern Tory party should specifically target those millions of voters who have lost faith in politics-as-usual. Offer them citizen lawmakers, rather than professional politicians as candidates.  Give them a real power of recall, popular initiative and more direct democracy.

3.  Embrace technology; Harold Wilson embraced the "white heat of the technological revolution", shortly before he reverted to the crudest form of economic collectivism imaginable.

Tory modernisers also like to see themselves as techno hipsters. Yet for all their talk about "Silicon roundabout", many seem not to grasp how the digital revolution will allow the public to control public services. 

A pro technology party would have a much more pro aviation policy and would have an energy policy based on innovation, not subsidy.

4.  Be more effective in office; In the 1980s, politics was a choice between socialism and capitalism. Today, it is a choice between steady-as-she-sinks Whitehall managerialism or public service reform that puts the public first. Even Tony "scars-on-my-back" Blair came to recognise this.

It is, therefore, very bad news that, as Iain Dale puts it, "the majority of cabinet ministers seem to have been taken prisoner by their civil servants". We need to urgently make ministers and mandarins outwardly accountable, with public confirmation hearings and annual select committee approval for Whitehall budgets.

5.  Lance the Europe boil; Europe has been a running sore that has divided the party for a generation. So offer the people an In / Out vote to settle the matter.

6.  Immigration – don't talk, act; For years modernisers said that we shouldn't keep on talking about immigration.  I agree – instead of talking about it, now that we hold office we should actually do something about it. See Australia for details - then do it, so we can talk about other things.

7.  A free market party; The government's approach to the economy has changed very little since Gordon Brown was running the Treasury. Osbrown economics means using monetary stimulus to try to engineer growth and endless rounds of QE.

Too much corporatism will make us a party of crony – rather than free market – capitalism. This will be a disaster politically, not just economically.  Nothing will be more toxic to the Tory brand than the idea that we are the party of corporatist fat cats and rent seekers. We need to give serious thought to the free market alternatives to avoid this.

I hope that this time next year we Tories are not still banging on about how to be modern – because we just are.  Happy 2013!

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