Thinking For The Individual

Formerly known as 'Thinking For The People', this site offers some reflections on the state of British society and her people from the perspective of a libertarian Conservative with a passionate belief in the pillars of freedom and responsibility.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

School Vouchers Are Catching On

The following snippet comes from the excellent think-tank Reform's Media Summary for the weekend, which can be found here.

Neil Collins: Tony Blair’s “big idea” should be education vouchers.
In Monday’s Telegraph, Neil Collins advised the Prime Minister to adopt education vouchers as his “big idea”. He said: “For many parents, the process of trying to get a child into the school of their choice is one of the most stressful experiences they suffer, short of seeing the child being ill …. It’s no surprise that parents will try any trick they can think of, from a sudden interest in religion to renting a property they have no intention of occupying, or even straight bribery, to get that precious last place in a decent state school …. [The Chancellor] is spending enough on education, Lord knows; £59 billion last year, £63 billion this year, £72 billion next, and £77 billion by 2007-08. This last sum is equivalent to £5,500 per pupil, and is quite enough to buy a decent education; annual fees for a Girl's Day School Trust school outside London – if you can get in – are currently £5,025 …. The way out of this slough of despond is to empower parents and teachers with education vouchers. The bureaucrats are terrified of the very word, since it would mean the end of them; an education department cut down to a few hundred administrators, local authorities cut out completely, and Ofsted disbanded …. Any small group of teachers could start their own school; 20 pupils would produce an annual income of £100,000 …. New schools would spring up everywhere, competing for pupils; some would strive for academic excellence, but some would target those who are today being excluded …. A dream? Almost certainly. A chance for Mr Blair to change the face of Britain for the better? Absolutely. Education, education, education, as someone once said, long, long ago.


School vouchers really are the right's big idea for education. They've been thought about for decades, ever since Friedman came up with them. They work wherever they've been tried. They help poorest kids most of all. The only people they harm is the educational Establishment: the unions-bureaucrats axis. There is a real opportunity in the coming years for the economic libertarians in our society to become the revolutionary, anti-Establishment heroes. This is one of the many ways Britain can be transformed.

Not So Quiet On The Tory Front

As a decent, honourable person I have tried over the last few weeks to ignore the endless speculation over the Conservative Party leadership. Alas, my determination to focus the efforts of the centre-right on the real issues of the day, like the European Constitution, like taxation and all the rest of it, have been met with failure.

So, in the time-honoured tradition of lone voices like myself, I say, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!"

David Davis remains in front at this stage, gaining some kudos in my mind for encouraging the party to tone down the rhetoric on the future leadership. The real movement is occuring amongst the 'anyone but Davis' camp, as that is what the likes of David Cameron and Malcolm Rifkind amount to. The latest news, which is growing in the public consciousness since the good people at conservativehome.com broke it, is that some kind of Cameron-Rifkind-Clarke axis is being engineered. There is little doubt that this kind of triumverate would be overwhelmingly backed in the parliamentary party, but again there is the niggling problem for the Westminster elitists that the grassroots wouldn't fall for such a scheme.

Then there is the reforms to the Party's constitution, which would see power centralised even more to Central Office (if that's what we call Party HQ nowadays). We really do not want to follow the Blair model of central control in our political campaigns. I firmly believe that we should do the exact opposite, and bring power back to constituencies. Part of the disillusionment of people from politics today is that so much of it is conducted in Westminster corridors and party headquarters, a long way away from Main Street or suburbia. If local parties were given greater powers over who they wanted as their candidates and how they distributed their resources, then future Conservative MPs might be more likely to become thorns in the side of the leadership, but they'll be damn good constituency representatives!

But perhaps the leadership is a different matter. After all, Conservatives in Glasgow or Newcastle might want someone different to Conservatives in Berkshire or the South Downs, because their political priorities are so different. My mind is still open to changes in the way we elect a leader. Yes, constituencies should have a say, but maybe not the final and decisive say. I don't like all this talk that the grassroots were responsible for Iain Duncan Smith. Back then, it was a choice between him, a careful and measured Eurosceptic who had risen to the top by an extraordinary combination of luck and others' failure, or Kenneth Clarke, a Europhile who would have been completely inappropriate. If the liberal wing of the party had a problem with Duncan Smith's election, then maybe they should have been a bit more sensible in how they approached the 2001 leadership contest, and maybe they should have dealt with Michael Portillo slightly better and embraced him as part of a Clarke-Portillo union. Instead, they spent the next two years moaning and groaning.

The Conservative predicament is that we have a tonnage of talent. We have so many famous faces on our benches, so many bright stars, so many intelligent thinkers, so many popular men and women that it is nigh on impossible to find a true leader with all of the qualities needed and whom all sections of the party can embrace. We have potentially a myriad of centre-right policy ideas at our disposal, on education, on healthcare, on taxation, that our problem may become summoning the kind of confidence we need to present these ideas to the British people.

If a leader emerges with talent and ideas, as well as a vision which he or she believes in and has the confidence to propose to the party and the nation, then the Conservative Party will be cruising into government in four or five years' time, and its leader shall not only become Prime Minister, but shall be remembered as one of the greatest reforming leaders our society has ever had.

The opportunity is there. Let us grasp it!

Tax Freedom Day

Today is Tax Freedom Day!!

Today is the day when we stop working just to line the government's pockets and start working for ourselves. Today is the day when the average worker in Britain has earned enough to pay their tax bill for the year.

It comes three days later than last year and five days later than the year before. The Adam Smith Institute has pinned the blame for the rise on Labour's national insurance and council tax rises. What is even more stark is that it is set to move into June next year unless taxes are cut.

We all know the dangers of high taxes. We've all rehearsed them over and over again, and we've all worked out that only the naive and the unthinking believe higher taxes will bring better services and a better economy. It is urgent that taxes are cut, and they must be cut at a phenomenal rate - by that I don't mean raising taxes but at a slower rate, or cutting national insurance just a tad. I mean a real overhaul of Britain's tax system. The abolition of all the silly nuisance taxes would be a good start - the abolition of inheritance tax or car tax, in favour of road tolls.

I believe in a strong Britain of only two taxes - a flat-rate of income tax, with a generous personal allowance of non-taxed income; and a local sales tax to replace VAT, which would pay for local government.

We don't need a mighty State any more, because a mighty State is the most abhorrent obstacle in the face of economic progress, which benefits the richest and the poorest, and which is ironically the greatest way to achieve the kind of social equality that pro-government socialists like to talk about.

A truly reforming government would not push Tax Freedom Day back by one or two days, but by months!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

France and Europe

It appears that the French have rejected the European Constitution. Of course, we know absolutely nothing about what this will mean for the future of the EU. This institution is one of the most secretive around the globe, and has been designed for that purpose. Jean Monnet, its founding father, did say that the Community should take slow steps towards federalism which would be disguised as having an economic purpose.

Over the last few months I have often come to think: can you imagine George Washington putting a spin on the American Constitution back in the 1700s or the people of Massachusetts rejecting the draft because it was geared too much to the benefit of New Hampshire. The charade of the Constitution is proof if it were needed that Europe can never be one great power. It's just not our destiny, and it should not be forced by the federalists who make up the continent's political elites.

It has often been said by those who support the free market as the greatest way of achieving a great society that the European Union will eventually either evolve into an organization truly committed to free trade, or it will simply collapse.

My hope has always been that one of those outcomes will come true - I'm not too bothered whether it is the former or the latter. But the people of Europe can not - and must not - surrender themselves to become part of a European superstate against their wishes. That is not our destiny at all, and we must merely accept that. We can not become an evermore glued-together union just to satisfy the wishes of men like Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder, as well as their friends concealed behind thick doors in Brussels and Strasbourg.

The coming months will make the scene clearer. If the European Union refuses to learn their French lesson, then it will become obvious that the 'dream' of a European superstate is fast becoming a reality that we must use all force at our disposal to combat. But if they listen and take note, then we will all be better off.

Am I cynical in expecting the Europeans will go on arrogantly ignoring the wishes of their respective electorates? Am I not communautaire enough because I can not accept that a truly unified Europe is our destiny? Am I plainly obstinate because I want to do all that is humanly possible to ensure that Britain is a strong power in the world and not part of a glued-together Europe?

Please, be you British, European or Martian, tell me that you are not part of the elite who want a European superstate, but part of the majority who want freedom!

The Disrespect of Britain's Youth

A lot has been said in the last couple of weeks about the rise and rise of Britain's hooded youth. The decent, law-abiding majority are angry at this symbol of our modern society's way of accepting every chav and scally boy that threatens our peace.

I have only one piece of advice for anyone who feels worried, amused or indifferent about this debate: the last time the government had any gripes with people wearing hoods, it was the monks. Perhaps the answer to the appalling disrespect in Britain's youth is better history teaching. Because if they start to associate hoods with the monks, it might be a less cool fashion!

On a more serious note, there is a problem with the way the debate about respect in Britain's youth is conducted. Readers who have followed my posts regularly may not have gathered, but this writer is considerably younger than he lets on. Yesterday evening, I was sat amongst a gathering of older friends who were complaining typically about the way things used to be and how kids today don't behave like they used to. They found a number of reasons why, ranging from my sublime way of blaming it on the Welfare State - I was the lone voice in the room at that time - to the ridiculous of blaming it on Thatcherite individualism. The truth is that changing Britain's youth is not as easy as rolling back the years and setting policies so that our society accurately resembles the state of affairs of some bygone epoch, some zenith of respect. The debate is much different to that. My friends who last night bemoaned 'kids today' passed the following hours talking about how appallingly-behaved they used to be when they were younger. They even gave a few examples of how rude and disrespectful they had been in the last few weeks, and each time they had another tale I would conclude sardonically (like a typically disrespectful yob) 'kids today'! But most importantly of all, they tried their hardest to absolve themselves of most of their responsibilities as parents.

Quite simply, government diktat can not make a respectful, law-abiding youth. That is the job of each and every parent and teacher throughout this island. But so long as we are forced to put up with nannying governments who are willing to devolve no powers to parents over how to bring up their children, how the hell do we achieve that?

Perhaps 'disrespect' is an entity. Perhaps it's there. Perhaps it has been there all the time, exemplified by 'mods and rockers' in the past and by 'hoodies and chavs' today. I don't know, but that seems like too convenient and too lily-livered a conclusion to me.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Why The Liberal Democrats Are On Their Way Down

A lot has been made of the great successes of the Liberal Democrats in this recent general election. They have won 62 seats in the new House of Commons, gaining 11 overall. They secured a significant share of the vote which, although goes unrewarded under our system (which I have already written about at length on this site) can easily be commended. Their tactical strategy has sent home Labour MPs in some parts of the country, and Conservatives in others. Regardless of the policies their candidates were forced to campaign on, their election strategy has stunned their Labour and Conservative colleagues in the House.

They are particularly proud of their victory in the student seat of Leeds North West. Greg Mulholland took well over a third of the vote in a close, three-way marginal. They gained 10% of the vote over their 2001 standing. With a majority of nearly two thousand votes, this was some success, which has been repeated elsewhere, whether in the metropolises of the north or the fields of the south. Their growing strength continues to make Tory and Labour MPs sit up and think.

But this tryst across the country with the Liberal Democrats may be short-lived. Take a look at Cornwall North, a constituency which the Liberals won with over 50% of the vote in 2001. They lost nearly 10% of their share this time round, leaving them with a majority of just 5.5%, compared with 18.2% previously. Unless there is some kind of local issue which the sitting Liberal MP Dan Rogerson has lost some of his popularity over, this may signal a trend. Whilst areas of the country which have never flirted with the Liberal Democrats before are growingly dismayed by the Labour government and the Tory alternative, those seats which have endured at least four years of Liberal representation are unenthralled and disenchanted. They're not turning away from the Liberal Democrats before they think it's a wasted vote in our system of first-past-the-post. They just think that the Liberal Democrat MPs are weak, limp failures, offering nothing great to local people. And they think Charles Kennedy's team is offering a vision for a weaker Britain, not a stronger one, and a society which bows down to the enormous problems we all face.

The voters of old Liberal Democrat seats are growing tired with bad MPs. The newly-elected, euphoric Liberals in the House of Commons should take not that the people will never forgive them if they fail in their first duty to their electors. Alas, when one looks at the 'talent' apparently on show on the Liberal Front Bench, I am sure that battle has already been fought and lost.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Good Luck, Mr. Blunkett

Last week I found myself discussing with a friend the relative successes and shortcomings of New Labour's economic agenda over recent years. Of course, he had fallen for the same Brownite/Blairite mantras: low mortgage rates, low interest rates and low unemployment in contrast with the days of Tory boom and bust.

But as someone who believes entirely in the virtiues of individual independence and freedom, Labour's most annoying claim to me is that we are living in an era of higher employment levels than ever before. This is a lie, wrapped in a myth, veiled under spin. On the contrary, there are around nine million people out of work in our country who are of working age. Let it be noted that my friend went wild with laughter at this idea.

Of course, that figure is true, but it is not an appropriate measure to use. It takes account of students and those in early retirement, for two examples. But it also takes account of those receiving invalidity benefit. When I cited this particular group of people, my friend asked what I classed as 'disabled' and was particularly amused at the thought of nine million invalids walking through the streets of Britain.

The remarkable rise in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit occured during the era of the last Conservative government. In 1979, 600,000 people claimed the benefit. By 1995, this figure had jumped to 1.5 million. Far and away the most claimants are taking this benefit on the grounds of of 'mental and behavioural disorders' as well as 'diseases of the musculo-skeletal system and connective tissue'. Notwithstanding my complete ineptitude at understanding anything scientific, one can easily class stress and backache as two of the conditions which fall under these two categories. What's more, one can easily claim that it is virtually impossible to prove their existence. Yet these two categories account for well over half the diseases which cause incapacity. The benefit is predominantly claimed in those locales with already high levels of unemployment. As James Bartholomew writes in his excellent book The Welfare State We're In, 'Backache appeared to be something people particularly got if wages were low in relation to invalidity benefit'. Indeed, the top five districts for highest levels of incapacity benefit claimants are Merthyr Tydfil, Easington, Glasgow, Blaenau Gwent and Liverpool. In addition to this, it should be recognised that that incapacity benefit differed from unemployment benefit in that it was paid indefinitely, not for a fixed term. Yet the most serious issue with this rise in disability claimants is that it conincided with the time period after the level of invalidity benefit were increased. Beveridge had intended all people to receive the same, whether they were unemployed or incapacitated. But in the seventies, under both Prime Ministers Heath and Wilson, the benefit rose so that it was worth nearly a quarter more than unemployment benefit. This has gone up slightly more again in the years since then. 7% of Britain's working-age population claims the benefit, as opposed to 2% in France or 3% in Spain. Research by Sheffield Hallam University has estimated that half the number of incapacity benefit recipients should be termed the 'hidden unemployed'. Therefore, 750,000 of the 1.5 million on incapacity benefit in 2003 should be the key targets of any attempts to finally break through the red brick wall standing in the way of any politicians who believe in the economic independence we all aspire to.

Now that David Blunkett has all but confessed to the existence of this underbelly of unemployment, perhaps my friend will start taking this matter more seriously. He is the archetypal New Labour Blairite. He was, naturally, privately educated, and comes from a good, 'hard-working family'. Indeed, he was probably next in line for a photo shoot during the election campaign. He hasn't really got a clue what life is like in the tough inner cities throughout Britain, where the words 'despair' and 'misery' don't come close to explaining their state of life. He doesn't know what it's like in the old industrial areas of south Wales, Yorkshire and the North because 'The Guardian' is yet to do a special report on it. He hears about recession in the Tory days, but he's happy and relaxed by Labour tax and spend and by the fact that public spending in the north is higher than it was in eastern bloc Hungary. He'll listen to soliloquies from Vera Baird, who told MPs yesterday that this is all necessary to ensure 'nobody gets left behind', even though anybody who truly cared for the people in my part of the world would know that it is precisely that high spending that is holding us back, like slaves under the weight of oppression. But, nonetheless, as long as Vera Baird is speaking as if we're all on some collective journey to a new Jerusalem, he'll feel safe and happy that his politics are left intact, despite what all the nay-sayers and doomsters like me are arguing.

He feels fine with the loss of a million manufacturing jobs under Labour. He is contented by Blair's inability to bring light to the darkest corners of Britain, where Thatcher's economic dynamism - as remarkable as it was elsewhere - brought devastation to whole communities. And he is fine with the face that the only jobs on offer in the Britain of 2005 have titles you could only ever find in the public sector, like 'Community Liaison Team Manager' or 'Supervising Deputy Assistant to Manchester City Council on Racial Interface and Diversity Issues'.

Britain is in a rut. Our real state is covered up by layers of statistics strewn with spin. It is kept hidden away by the perilous orthodoxies perpetuated by Blairite mantra chanters just like my friend who thinks we're in a paradise, a utopia, just because his middle class household owns two cars and the kind of security and independence that is the stuff of dreams for too many British people.

A good starting point in tearing down the misery and despair of dependence is by helping people off invalidity benefit. David Blunkett is a capable man with the kind of Yorkshire grit that I always try to muster up in myself.

Mr. Blunkett, your cause is a noble one, but you face some enormous challenges. How can you expect to give people work so long as businesses are heading abroad to break free from the strains of the high tax and high regulation typical of Blair's Britain?

All I can say, Mr. Blunkett, is this: good luck, sir.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Britain: Happy Slapping Capital of the World

If any readers watched an ITV programme last night which contained footage taken by a camera phone of real incidents of a new craze called 'happy slapping' and if you felt a sense of fear, anger or vengeance, let me say that you were not alone.

It appears that this popular pastime is taking Britain's youth by storm. It involves stalking up behind complete strangers - usually with a cocky spring in the step - and simply smacking them in the face, while - like psychotic wildlife - shouting 'happy slap!' It has caused the bursting of at least one man's eardrum, and led ultimately to the burning of another.

What do we do about it?

A drunken friend declared whilst watching these horrifying images: 'They should root it out in the schools'. That's a fair point, but isn't that a little late? Traditional, small-c conservatives like me are shouting at a brick wall when we declare that the real centre of education is the home. If you don't get them in the first years of life, you never will.

Or is it part of our culture? Should we ban the television programmes and films that perpetuate the idea that random violence is the way to get kicks? After all, this craze can - for once - be sourced directly to at least one television programme (American, obviously!).

Is there anything anybody can do? Is there anything that citizens can do? Well, of course. It is the role of good, sensible parents to ensure this kind of behaviour never reigns in the minds of tomorrow's leaders. I will say this again and again: the role of good parents is to keep their children on the straight and narrow.

But ultimately this is one of those issues where we individuals, families and communities are powerless. If a yob in Birmingham or Leeds couldn't give a damn about setting alight a stranger who fell asleep in a bus shelter, there is no hope for the brave, courageous heroes who try to take the law into their own hands. The yobs will always beat us. We don't stand a chance.

Police forces which are unaccountable to the citizenry are perhaps just as poorly placed. There is no respect for authority in Britain's youth, and it may be all down to the days when we became a 'permissive society'.

I don't advocate a return to the days when people were stoned for the colour of their skin or whom they chose to share a bed with. But if the Blair government - a government which has handed down regulations on how people should wash their hands - believes in a protective State, then this is the time for the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to show their true colours.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Socialism Is Responsible For Global Warming!!!

I have a theory. Yes, it makes me sound like a crank. Yes, it's probably mostly wrong. But here me out at least. My theory is that socialism is responsible for global warming.

In Britain, socialism saw the centralisation of industry and public services. Whilst before the Welfare State, there were clinics and small schools serving every two or three small streets, now there is a comprehensive serving a catchment area of miles. Whilst before the nationalisation of industry, there were small factories and workshops at the end of every street, now people's workplaces are much further away.

Because people work further from their homes, and are required to travel further away to drop their children off at school or to go for a scan at a hospital, they can not necessarily live their lives on foot.

One of the key reasons many car owners cite for their reliance on their little, colourful boxes of metal and oil is precisely that. People nowadays must travel further to work and to live.

It is a commonly accepted fact that transportation is responsible for a significant proportion of the global environmental problems our planet is suffering. 18% of the UK's CO2 emissions are caused by cars, and that figure is rising. And CO2 emissions are responsible for some of those dangers facing our earth, including global warming.

No matter what we may individually think about the science behind global warming (I myself believe the scare stories of the environmentalists are rather dubious, but that's for another time) the fact is that people rely on cars today because of the centralising nature of socialism, which has destroyed the strength and spirit of small, local communities. This is precisely what the twenty-first century should be about. The defining characteristics of our new century may have something to do with the global environment, or terrorism, or, as ever, warfare. I sincerely hope, however, that the politicians make our new century about something different. The twentieth century will go down as the era when they took away power from local people and gave it to meddling, interfering politicians and bureaucrats. We should go back on all of that, so that one day in the twenty-first century we can simply walk down the street to work or skip to school with a spring in our step.

A localised society, based on the strength and spirit of the community, not the State, is, inevitably, the way to relieve the burdens we have placed on Mother Nature.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tory Reshuffle: Make or Break for the Next Leader

Michael Howard has made a rather daring Shadow Cabinet reshuffle, bringing together all the talents and all the qualities that the Conservatives have on their benches. We have some youthful shadow ministers full of vitality, of which George Osborne and David Cameron are undoubtedly two. We have experience too, best personified by giants like Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

It is a Shadow Cabinet which brings together all wings of the party - yet, as I have written recently, that is hardly difficult in a party so fundamentally united over its guiding philosophy as the Conservatives are. There is Alan Duncan and Andrew Lansley on the left, and David Davis and John Redwood on the right (whatever 'right' and 'left' mean in the Conservative Party).

Most importantly of all, this is a Shadow Cabinet from which the next leader of the party will almost certainly emerge. Whether you prefer a social and economic liberal like Alan Duncan or a hard-line right-winger like David Davis - in a leadership race which hasn't actually kicked off yet - these are the names which will be looked at first.

Their performance over the coming months with their respective portfolios may well make or break potential leaders. David Davis has identity card proposals to oppose as Shadow Home Secretary, yet what a treacherous position he would be put in if the rest of the leadership decided - after much dithering - to back identity cards after all. What if Sir Malcolm Rifkind flops in the House of Commons against David Blunkett as the government promises an overhaul of the Welfare State? What if Liam Fox tries to fight against a Foreign Secretary who suddenly stops being a puppet and starts standing up to both the Americans and the Europeans, and begins to pursue the feisty and independent foreign policy a nation like Britain should be used to carrying out? What if George Osborne stands up against a Chancellor of the Ex-Chequer who becomes stunned by the virtues of lower taxation and lower spending?

I realised I'm drifting from the sublime to the ridiculous by now, but the next few months will make or break those leadership campaigns which have been silently spiralling to fruition in the last few days. I think I have decided whom I personally would support in such a campaign, yet we will have to see how time progresses.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Liberal Democrats would be the real losers under PR

We all understand why the Liberal Democrats are consistently the greatest proponents of introducing an element of proportional representation to elections to the House of Commons, and it is perfectly understandable that they should wish for it, since, as Charles Kennedy proclaimed last week, we are now in an era of three-party politics.

Regardless of the arguments for and against proportional representation, on reflection it is rather odd that the Liberal Democrats believe in the system for Westminster elections.

Because we elect Members of Parliament, who then indirectly form a government, rather than having our votes used directly to elect a governing party, all sorts of quirks pop up. Some of us live in constituencies which are solidly Labour or Conservative. Some of us live in marginals which might go either way, or even to the Liberals themselves. Therefore my argument is that because we elect representatives rather than governments, we do not treat our vote in the same way as we otherwise would.

I must confess to having no statistics on which to back up my argument, but the overwhelming feeling throughout the country is that few people want a Liberal Democrat government led by Charles Kennedy. Perhaps, as in a system of proportional representation, if a ballot was used to elect a government, not just a representative, then we would all be more 'mature' (without wishing to sound too arrogant) in whom we support. The Liberal Democrats undeniably recieve the lion share of their support from protest votes at the Tories and Labour, as well as in marginal seats where the Liberals are close challengers to the major two.

Perhaps in a system of proportional representation, we would not protest, nor feign support for a Liberal to kick out a sitting Tory or Labour MP. It is one theory and it may be wrong. But I do worry that as the debate on PR moves up a gear after last week's terrible, yet equally successful performance by the Labour Party, we may forget that it will not be the Conservatives and Labour who are the winners because they'll be too busy trying to forge weak and ineffective coalitions. Ironically, it won't be the Liberal Democrats either because the mainstream voters will not take them seriously, and the protestors will just treat them like all the rest. The real winners from PR will be the cranks and the extremists, because people will no longer protest at the mainstream two by voting Lib Dem, but they will protest at the mainstream three by voting UKIP, Veritas, Green or even BNP.

Without intending to sound too melodramatic, this is largely how Nazi Germany started.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

All Conservatives must unite around one common cause

I have lost count of the number of times people tell me that this country has never been so prosperous. I have lost count of the number of times people talk about money, as if the size of their bank balance or the number of carats in their golden jewels is the most fundamental measure of success. Perhaps it is because too many politicians only ever talk about money. We measure the success of a government on how much we’re earning, how much we’re paying to the Exchequer and how much is going in to the public services. Yet this is an ignorant position, because it ignores the real poverty which is crippling individuals, families and communities on a mass scale in Britain.

A Conservative Party which seeks to form a government in four or five years’ time must be ready to propose a radical programme ultimately designed to empower the poorest members of our society. We need not be afraid of giant reforms. After all, Beveridge’s Five Giants are still dangerously prevalent in our modern era, and are far more deeply rooted than they were in the forties. The poverty we must have the vision and the will to address and defeat is not simply the material poverty that the other parties talk about, but the poverty of ambition, the poverty of aspiration and the poverty of virtue too.

Traditionally, governments have come to accept the Welfare State as the best way to help the most disadvantaged in our society. Yet on the contrary, the Welfare State continues to be the biggest obstacle facing the men, women and children who must live and work in some of our society’s most despairing places. The Conservative Party has a duty to put forward a manifesto which is so radical and so visionary that when the next Conservative leader walks over the threshold of Number Ten Downing Street, he or she shall be remembered as one of the giant reformers of the twenty-first century.

The next Conservative government must focus on bringing support to the disadvantaged, the deprived and the depressed individuals, families and communities which should be a scar on the conscience of politicians everywhere to their charming, many-bedroomed abodes in their expensive Jaguars and BMWs, dressed in their nice, tailored suits.

I do not subscribe to the view that the Conservative Party is fundamentally divided. Yes, we have factions, some of which are more powerful than others. There are those who take a relaxed attitude to social change, and believe our political masters should ‘live and let live’. They support gay rights and accept lone parenthood. On the other hand, there are those who feel that the cavernous poverty of which I have written in this article is the most important challenge for the politicians of today to face up to. There are those who want the Conservative Party to focus on its core voters, by presenting a tougher line on immigration, tax cuts and zero tolerance in fighting crime.

There is a falsehood about the Conservative Party peddled by many both in and out. It is claimed that a Conservative Party which has some social changers, some poverty crusaders and some hard liners can never truly work together. This is plainly untrue. The Conservatives are absolutely some of the most decent people I know. The way to get these groups, these factions working together for a collective cause is in fact fairly simple.

We need firstly to embrace the social changers by having equal respect for all people, no matter whom they share their beds with, where they pray or how many parents are in their household. The Conservative Party has always had a deep commitment to personal privacy and liberty, so it is foolish that we should baulk at the sight of a gay couple or a single parent. We should, in truth, be the ones who are supporting the rights of all people to live a happy and fruitful life.

We must also demonstrate the utmost compassion for society’s most vulnerable people. Labour and the Liberal Democrats talk persistently about how much money people are earning, and describing the rich as people who take home more than a certain amount of money. Perhaps this is because it’s so much easier to set down in tabular form average incomes, or numbers receiving state benefits. Or perhaps it’s because they don’t have the ideas, the determination or the bottle to tackle real poverty. The Conservative Party has a unique and unparalleled opportunity to present a programme for government which would fight and destroy the drivers of despair which still haunt us today.

And finally we have those who believe that our core vote strategy should go on as it did in 2001 and 2005. They believe in fighting the creeping monster of Europe and the yob culture of modern Britain. They want lower taxes and lower spending. Those people are absolutely right to make these demands. After all, I know of few better ways to encourage hard work than to stop forcing a man or a woman on the minimum wage to hand over a vast proportion of their earnings as income tax without any question of their situation.

The Conservative Party is a broad church full of individuals and groupings who believe in a better society which is based on the principles of fairness, tolerance and acceptance. All we need to do is come together and put forward a radical vision for the next Conservative government to put into practice. It is not impossible. If the next Conservative leader can walk through Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate or along the River Mersey and proclaim a vision for modern Britain which accepts the rich diversity of our society and fights for the betterment of every man, woman and child, no matter where they come from, what they look like or who they live with, we will form the next government.

The recipe for a Conservative renaissance

The last few days have been taken up by talk about where the Conservative Party will go under a new leader. Articles have been written, interviews have been given and speeches have been made by potential leaders. Some say that we need to denounce Thatcherism. Some talk of a liberal naissance for a Tory Party hoping to be modern and cool. Others want us to follow the tack of this last election by talking about the issues that matter to people in their daily lives.

People have been nagging themselves silly, worrying that we need to have a fundamental change in our underpinning philosophy. I disagree. Now more than ever, the Conservatives need to trumpet their principles of small government, the freedom of the people and local empowerment. Our belief in families and communities stands in stark contrast to Labour’s inexorable move towards a powerful Whitehall. Our belief in enterprise stands in contrast to Labour’s treatment of small businesses, especially their disdain for the self-employed – which became apparent when they wanted to ignore them in statistics for average income. Our belief in rewarding hard workers stands in contrast to Blair’s Britain, where a man earning the minimum wage must pay twenty pence for every pound instantly to Gordon Brown, and then usually at least another twenty pence if he buys a four-pack of Carling or twenty Lambert & Butler’s.

My party does not face the same challenge that Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair tried to overcome in the eighties and nineties, when Labour was a party full of foolish thinking and loony left madness. The Conservatives have a strong founding philosophy which we must never be afraid of trumpeting. We need to change only three things. We need new people at the top. This has already been going on under previous leaders. There is a tonnage of capable figures in our shadow cabinet and on our backbenchers, ranging from tough, strong right-wingers like David Davis, to liberal, more homely chaps like John Bercow – to name only two. I firmly believe that the Conservatives are the best equipped party in the House of Commons with Members of Parliament who have all the qualities that the people seek in their leaders – charisma, charm, intellect and strength. All of these people must be in the public eye when our new leader – however popular he or she may be on their own – is elected.

Then we need new policies. We have fought a successful election campaign with a decent strategy that has paid off. But we can not simply win the next election by playing up to populist fears about immigration, disciple in schools or cleanliness in hospitals. Thinkers on the centre-right have a mass of ideas which will propel the Conservatives into power one day with a huge popular mandate. We should not be afraid to put forward radical plans for the future of Britain. We should not be afraid to speak about empowering parents in the way we fund schools, or giving patients the opportunity to spend their money at hospitals of their choice. We should not be afraid to talk about a massive relief in the burden of taxation and an immense lessening of the role of this part-Napoleonic, part-Stalinist State of ours. There is a wealth of ideas, from school ‘vouchers’ and social insurance for healthcare to a flat-rate of income tax and elected commissioners for public services, that we should discuss readily and eagerly and which will one day be part of a radical Conservative manifesto.

Finally, with our star team and our radical programme, there is only one other challenge we need to face up to. Across Britain, particularly in the forgotten inner cities of the north which I have written about recently, people are flocking away from their traditional Labour allegiance by the million. They are fed up with the champagne-drinking, Mercedes-driving, dinner party lovers who reign on high in the Labour Party. They don’t like the memories of the war in Iraq, but what they really don’t like are politicians who are all talk and no action, who only want them for their vote once every four years and then for their money all the rest of the time. What this last general election tells us is that we need to make a breakthrough in the inner cities, because unless we pull back our support there, the Liberal Democrats will be the beneficiaries of a Labour decline, not the Conservatives. With a four-year campaign starting the day the new leader is elected, promising honesty and virtue, offering salvation from the misery and depression which is sadly commonplace around the country, we will win the next general election with a colossal popular mandate.

These guidelines must be followed to the word whoever the next leader of the Conservative Party may be. With a strong team of leaders, a radical manifesto for government and a strategy which refuses to brand any part of Britain a ‘no-go area’, we will become the true party of government once more. Thanks to Michael Howard’s successes in the Midlands and the south, that task has been made easier. The next Conservative leader, with a mediocre share of the vote nationally, has a challenge ahead. But it is one worth fighting.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Tories must not ignore the inner cities – morally as well as politically

Looking at the raw results from the general election, we can make some simplistic assertions. Labour suffered a beating across the country, causing them to lose some of their key marginal seats. The Conservatives had some tremendous successes, as well as a little misfortune in failing to do even better than we did. The Liberal Democrats have suffered once again from an unfair electoral system, and deserve much credit for reducing the Labour vote in cities across the country. With the exception of one or two cases, such as in Bethnal Green & Bow or Blaenau Gwent, where George Galloway and an ex-Labour Welsh Assembly member pushed through the boundaries of expectation to take those seats, these assertions apply throughout the nation.

This general election has differed from the previous two in many respects. Not least, the Conservative Party has done better, in terms of raw seats in the House of Commons, than in the previous elections. But more importantly for me, as a Conservative, is that our result has not been treated like a disaster from which we will never return.

There can be no doubt that the Conservative campaign was a skilled one. As this election was never going to bring in a landslide Tory government, we were obliged to focus our efforts on those key voters in marginal seats across the country who have a great deal of influence in deciding who governs these isles. In doing this, the strategy we employed has paid off. We only need to take a glance at our successes in constituencies which were low on our presumed target list to see this. Enfield Southgate, Reading East and Gravesham were three English seats that we needed to take to return to government, but not if our only objective was to make inroads in certain pockets throughout the country.

However, we must not assume that all will be rosy now that Tony Blair will face inherent difficulties in overcoming opposition to his dangerous and foolish plans. When one considers the Prime Minister’s inability to lead his own party, and to inspire the rest of us to agree with him, it seems likely that he shall struggle. My only advice to the Prime Minister: expect some defeats.

Despite the smug look the Conservatives deserve to have on their faces whilst the economy founders and whilst questions over the Prime Minister’s leadership go on, we must not forget that in terms of the national vote, we have made only an insignificant success. Where Labour and the Conservatives battled closely, we have succeeded. Yet one can handpick seats in cities throughout Britain where it is not my party, but the Liberal Democrats and others have succeeded. In Leeds Central, a constituency I often look to with interest as it is the place where I was brought up, Hilary Benn’s share of the vote fell by 6.9%. Yet it wasn’t the Conservative candidate who reaped the benefits – he lost 1.1%. It was the Liberal Democrats and even the British National Party who are winning up there.

If we intend to win an overwhelming majority in the next election, then we need to enter government as a party which represents the whole nation, not just the useful bits down south. Our strategy worked considerably in this election, but next time round we need to take our cause to the forgotten inner cities, particularly in the north, in Scotland and in Wales. One might argue that the Conservatives do not stand a chance in Leeds Central, so why bother? But I think that is pessimistic and arrogant. The Conservative Party can not go into government dependent on rural votes and a smattering of marginal seats alone. If we intend to change the political landscape, we should plan to shake the ground under the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Leeds. We should fight to be heard in the valleys of Wales and by the lochs of Scotland. We can not afford to ignore the people who live in the northern inner cities, or the people who have suffered from the decisions of both parties when in government. We should never say that a Tory MP for Blaenau Gwent is a crazy thought, because if a lowly independent can bring down the Welsh Establishment, then so can a Conservative Party which focuses its efforts on bringing salvation to the forgotten corners of our island. All we need are the right policies, the right people and the right strategy, as well as a touch of optimism.