London suffered another devastating blow with the Grenfell Tower fire. The horrifying loss of life and the justified anger of the local community has been shamelessly exploited by Jeremy Corbyn and the hard-left to score political points against the government. But the Conservatives are now at risk of losing one of the most important elements of the party’s identity; compassionate conservatism.
After eight long years in opposition, David Cameron made it his mission to restore the Conservatives’ credentials as a party of compassion. As a “Modern, Compassionate Conservative”, Cameron emphasised the need to protect public services, support greater tolerance, and increase international aid. Compassion became a defining theme across the wider conservative movement. Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice provided conservative solutions to the root causes of poverty, and Tim Montgomerie supported the philosophy of compassionate conservatism on Conservative Home.
This wasn’t a cheap soundbite or a triumph of style over substance. It was an extraordinary rebirth of the party’s One Nation tradition of social reform. Cameron was passionate about fixing Britain’s “broken society”. Before he became Prime Minister, Cameron said “I'm going to be as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer.” Cameron stayed true to his word and oversaw major education and welfare reforms which have helped raise standards in schools and boost job creation. A few months before his resignation, Cameron also outlined a positive vision for tackling poverty with his Life Chances agenda. By using Conservative solutions to help the most vulnerable in society, the party was able to make itself more appealing to voters.
When Theresa May came to office, much of this agenda was side-lined and the Life Chances strategy was shelved. May wants to use the One Nation tradition to focus on helping the “just about managing”, the working-class voters who have been left behind by globalization and voted to leave the EU. It is certainly right that the Conservatives should champion blue-collar voters and shed its image as the “party of the rich”. But during the election campaign, the party forgot to talk about helping the poorest in society, and left the manifesto open to attack by Labour.
As the party licks its wounds and prepares for the next election, Conservatives should assemble a full spectrum agenda for social reform which brings the best of Cameronism and the best of Mayism into synthesis. The party can and should make life better for working-class voters as well as helping the poor. Only with a credible and broad agenda for social reform can the Conservatives hope to take the fight to Labour and prove that outdated socialist policies simply do not work.
Renewing the party’s commitment to compassion is also about our values as Conservatives. We have to show that Conservatism is not about materialism or self-interest, but about responsibility and caring for the common good. For almost two hundred years, the party has produced social reformers with moral fervour. Lord Shaftesbury, Richard Cross, Joseph Chamberlain, and Rab Butler are just some of the great reformers who helped make the One Nation tradition. Compassion has always been part of the fabric of Conservatism.
Corbyn has the advantage now because many voters believe he is leading the more moral party. But it is not enough for Conservatives to point out the ugliness of the hard-left. Conservatives need to show they have a compassionate agenda to heal the divisions in our society, as well as a moral philosophy which values the weak and the vulnerable. People should be able to feel that voting Conservative is a vote for a better and more compassionate country.
As the dust begins to settle, Conservatives have already started to look at why they lost their majority last week. One powerful narrative which has begun to take form is the argument that seven years of austerity have led to public sector workers being left behind while the economy continued to grow.
George Freeman MP, Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum, believes that the Labour surge was driven in part by “a massive vote by public service professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers, even the police) fed up at the prospect of indefinite austerity”. In an interview with Panorama, between losing his seat and becoming Downing Street’s new Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell recalled an encounter with a teacher in his constituency who said “you know I understand the need for a pay freeze for a few years to deal with the deficit but you're now asking for that to go on potentially for 10 or 11 years and that's too much.”
The election campaign brought these issues into sharp focus. In the past several months, the NHS suffered its worst winter crisis since 2004, the social care system reached a breaking point, and cuts to police numbers were blamed for the three recent terror attacks. This was not helped by a manifesto which promised to cut pensioner benefits and scrap free school lunches. Voters were not satisfied by the Conservatives’ miserly offer of prolonged austerity and economic competence.
Despite the fascinating ideas outlined in the manifesto’s introduction, there was no “retail offer” to compete with Labour, few policies for Conservative activists to brag about to voters. There were certainly mature, grown-up policies to help the country face the “five giant challenges” of our time. But it did not say how a Conservative government would make voters and their families better off. For all the gimmickry of the 2015 manifesto, it at least told voters clearly how they would benefit from a Conservative majority government.
As the Conservatives begin to rethink their approach towards austerity, it is important to remember that fiscal responsibility is a fundamental Tory principle. Abandoning this principle would be a major surrender to Jeremy Corbyn in the battle of ideas. The national debt stands at a staggering £1.9 trillion and 86% of GDP. This is a burden which millennials will have to help pay off for most of their adult lives. If Conservatives start to oppose all spending cuts, then it is hard to see how the government can keep borrowing and debt under control.
Instead, Conservatives should look at reconfiguring the deficit reduction programme so the burden does not fall disproportionately on hardworking people, especially public sector workers. This year, their wages were cut in real terms due to the pay freeze and creeping inflation. By 2020, average public sector pay could be £1,700 lower than in 2010. The economy might be growing, but this is clearly not being felt by everyone. As an opening move, the Conservatives could increase the cap on public sector pay. The burden of spending cuts needs to move away from the workers who keep our public services running.
In her first party conference speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May declared “we are the party of workers.” Last week’s election results proved that Conservatives still have their work cut out for them. Austerity is necessary, but it has to be implemented in a way which protects workers, the “just about managing”. If the Conservatives want to truly become a party of workers, then that must mean embracing public sector workers.