Sunday, October 09, 2005

Raising the political game

In The Business, this morning, Dominic Cummings writes on the dire state of the Conservative Party, behind the scenes, in a piece headed: "Tory Party revival? Not while MPs rule the roost".

While young Dominic is not our favourite person, being rather too full of himself, his piece does have a point. Comparing the right wing political scene in the UK with that in the United States, he observes that, for over 30 years, a vast conservative movement has grown in America, supported by ferocious intellectual energy and a myriad of organisational networks.

These networks, he writes, have thrived and reshaped political culture in a way that British Conservatives have not done in a century:

Talk radio and religious networks mushroomed. Nobel prize-winning intellectuals were networked into the Republican machine. Fox News broke the left’s grip on the commanding heights of culture – television. The Republicans could raise and spend hundreds of millions in advertising to work around the TV networks. The Heritage Foundation, just one think tank, raised more money annually than Britain’s Conservative Party and has more people thinking about British foreign policy than the British Conservative Party (which had one junior researcher in 2004 for "foreign affairs").
This, says Cummings, adds up to a strong political force whose fortunes are independent of whether a particular "leader" happens to be good or dud, a phenomenon which does not exist here. He continues:

The Conservative Party does not exist in large parts of the country; there is no significant intellectual network; its think tanks have no money; there is not one politically-significant grassroots organisation; TV advertising is banned, therefore the BBC is culturally dominant (and many conservatives have "great affection" for "the national institution" which is destroying them). Our parliamentary system means almost all candidates are like American senators –
compromised by legislating and unbelievable when they promise "change".
Cummings goes on to develop this theme in a piece which, for once, is worth reading and much of what he writes does strike a chord.

From my own personal experience, working for a shadow agriculture minister, the situation is absurd. Ranged against a mighty department of state, with its thousands of civil servants and a mind-wateringly complex portfolio which takes in environment, fishing, rural affairs and the whole of agriculture, we have (had) a dysfunctional team of MPs, most of whom have little grasp of the issues and spend little time attending to the detail.

Aside from the day-to-day parliamentary minutia, forward thinking and policy development has been undertaken by one junior shadow minister, assisted by his personal secretary – who has to spend much of her time on constituency work – a part-time researcher (myself), financed by a sympathetic Tory grandee because there are no Party funds available, and the occasional input from one worker in Central Office who, from past experience is so remote from the issues as to provide little help at all.

Predictably, when the shadow secretary of state wants briefing on some of the technical issues, he will go to the National Farmers' Union, which has its own vested interests. It is most concerned with maintaining the status quo and provides nothing by way of original thinking.

Being an MP brings its own pressures and stresses and such is the day-to-day tempo of parliamentary life – and the curious "bubble" effect of Westminster, - that it creates an environment where it is almost impossible to think. Thus, Cummings tells us, while Tory MPs ludicrously tell the members to "adapt or die", in the hideously centralised Conservative Party it is the MPs who control everything and simultaneously have no idea what constitutes effective action. Nobody can see a way to break the vicious feedback loop because everybody thinks salvation must come from the MPs.

These are the very people who are caught up in the bubble, the people who don't read books, who ask for abstracts of press coverage because they do not have time to read all the papers, and who want complex technical issues presented in "bullet points" on one side of one sheet of paper. These are people who are rarely seen at “think tank” meetings and seminars, and then only to spout their own views which, understandably, are most often devoid of serious content and originality. Thus does Cummings observe:

People assume that a sinister network of media moguls, crazed ideologues, greedy businessmen and PR wunderkinds are beavering away to make them Tory. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. When Tories now say on TV about everything "we'll have to examine it, we’re concerned about the details", that is because they have no idea what else to say and there is no machine to tell them. Nobody can believe this unless they have worked in the party.
The single biggest misconception about the Conservative Party is the idea that "their strategy is" or "they planned to..." In fact, Conservative MPs' activity is overwhelmingly simply an auto-spasmodic reaction to the media and parliamentary timetable. "Events, dear boy, events" is necessarily the operating principle of people who are not trained to think how to construct an intellectual and communications effort.

He concludes that there is no point hoping that dysfunctional Britain will be saved by Westminster; Westminster is why we are dysfunctional. New institutions are required regardless of the next leader. Donors and members have to abandon the idea that salvation will come from Westminster; they should instead build a movement that can take over Westminster a decade hence.

With that we agree. When it came to the "Thatcher revolution", the thinking came not from within the Party but from (mainly) the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) think-tank. Whoever takes on the Tory Party leadership, he is going to need a similar resource and, at the moment, it does not exist. Politics is about ideas and, as long as this situation continues, the Conservative Party will remain an "ideas-free zone", the bulk of policy relying on half-formed "bullet points" scribbled on the back of an envelope.

In a nutshell, if the Conservative Party is to survive, it is going to have to raise its game, and that "game" is not to be found in Westminster.

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