Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

May: Localism and local government

Speech to the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association

"And so, as sure as night turns to day, a General Election defeat has now been swiftly followed by another Tory leadership contest.

Of course we will need, in time, to elect a new leader.

But my concern is that, as usual, we are already rushing to a personality-based beauty contest.

When what we need most is to have a substantial debate about the future of our party.

So my message to our colleagues in Westminster is simple:

Stop looking for quick fixes.

There is no silver bullet.

Put the work in.

Face up to the scale of the problem.

Keep your eyes open, your thinking clear.

And empty your heads of ideological prejudice.

You see, there is a massive job to do, and so far I'm afraid most of our colleagues in Westminster have shown little or no sign that they understand just how big it is.

One of my faults, or so I'm told, is that I have a habit of quoting from Democrat Presidents.

Well tonight I will only quote from a fictional one, every Tory's favourite Democrat, President Jed Bartlet from The West Wing.

In one episode, he's talking about the mixed messages he's receiving from his economic advisers.

"Everyone's got a magic lever they want you to push," he says, "…but in this job only a fool is ever certain. You don't push any one lever. You want to push a little on all of them."

Bartlet could have been talking about the current Conservative debate.

Because that's the problem everyone seems to have a single policy answer to the massive problems we face.

For some, that policy is low taxes.

For some, it's choice in the public services.

And for others, it is localism.

But the truth is that no single policy or idea will be sufficient to rebuild the Conservative Party's relationship with the British people.

Just look at the evidence in the research published last week by Lord Ashcroft.

His polling showed that through January and February, Conservative policies on schools and the public services were never recalled by more than two per cent of the electorate at any one time.

It was simply not the case that people heard digested and rejected our policies.

They just didn't think we were worth listening to.

It therefore cannot be the case that a renewal of our policies this time around will be the answer.

And yet here we are in danger of elevating certain policies to the status of ideological cure-alls.

And you know what?

We've done it before.

For years, we saw low taxes and privatisation as ends in themselves, rather than as means to delivering the kind of open, free enterprise culture we value.

As a result, people thought us dogmatic rather than pragmatic more interested in pursuing our ideology for the sake of it, than in making a difference to their lives.

We did it again at the General Election, when there was no better example of our failure to connect with people and their values than our approach to the public services.

While people wanted the right to good quality public services, on May the Fifth we offered them the right to choose.

Yes, we aspired to good quality schools and hospitals.

But, while Labour talked the language of aspiration and improvement, people perceived the extent of our vision to be choice-driven managerial jargon.

And now, along with our lingering ideological obsessions with low taxes and choice, a growing number of voices have identified localism as the theory that will mend our broken party.

In recent weeks, some in the party have told us that they've found the secret to winning the next election.

They've called it localism.

Apparently all we have to do is talk to local people, get interested in local issues, focus on local campaigning, and get involved with our local communities.

What on earth do they think councillors have been doing, day in, day out, year after year?!

But when you get into specifics, you find that the implications of their brand of localism are quite different to what I and, I suspect, most of you have always believed in.

It is a blueprint for nothing less than the almost complete dismantlement of government --- at both a national and a local level.

Instead of government, they want to see Britain run by a plethora of locally-elected mayors, authorities, and officials.

A Britain more like America where people have the power to elect everyone from their local MP to their local dogcatcher.

Quite apart from what you may or may not think of this brand of localism, the really important question is who's going to vote for it?

There are two clear political dangers of a radical agenda that seeks to bypass and replace all levels of government, and that allows people instead to elect their own local police chiefs and school boards

First, the concept of elected boards and authorities has the potential to undermine the long-standing, and genuinely popular, Conservative commitment to civil society and voluntary action replacing it with yet more politicians and elected officials.

For example, how many people, who currently offer their time for free in order to act as school governors, do you think would be willing to put themselves up for public election to a school board?

Second, these policies might sound to us, and to friendly policy wonks, like clear and compelling proposals.

But many voters will choose to hear a far less desirable message.

As far as they're concerned, the message will be:

"You choose who you want to run things, you elect them, so now it's your problem, not ours."

Now I believe our values should include an instinct for local, people-based solutions, over Whitehall-bureaucratic centralisation.

I believe we should always seek to push down power from national government, through local government, and ultimately to people.

And I believe it is through the work of people like you and the base you have established at a local level that the Conservative Party can best approach the long journey back to government.

For the record, I was one of the co-founders of Britain's leading localist think tank, Policy Exchange.

And I remain a committed localist.

But, I also want to be clear that a local approach to our politics and our policies can only ever be a part of the answer we are looking for.

And, in rushing to narrow policy specifics, my colleagues risk missing crucial wider points about what needs to happen to get the Conservative Party back into shape.

In short, neither localism nor any other single policy idea will ever be sufficient to guarantee the revival of the Conservative Party.

Lord Ashcroft's polling also showed that, during the campaign, six times as many people saw the Conservative Party as 'old-fashioned' rather than 'modern'. And twice as many people saw us as 'dishonest' rather than 'honest', and 'not concerned about people' rather than 'concerned about them'.

These depressing results reflected the fact that the Conservative brand is seriously badly damaged.

If we are going to fix that, we will have to accept and respond to the way politics has changed and this is where you, as councillors, are way ahead of the Party in Westminster.

Today, politics is more than ever about individual people and families, and what government can do for them.

It is about making a difference to their day-to-day lives.

I know this because, like all of you, I was once a local councillor.

I was a councillor for eight years, and it taught me a lot.

Not least, I learnt that what people want is delivery on issues that matter, and not warm words and fuzzy jargon.

When I was Chairmen of Education on Merton Council, I was privileged to be able to champion the completion of an incredibly bold programme that was years ahead of its time.

We made sure that there was a free nursery school place available to every three and four year-old child whose parents wanted one.

This was way before central government had woken up to the importance of nursery education for children and their parents.

The lesson of how local councils can lead the way, because they operate at such close range to the lives of the people they are elected to serve, has never left me.

I think the Conservative Party, at a national level, now has to demonstrate that same kind of commitment to delivering the things that really matter to people.

And it has to demonstrate an absolute flexibility of thinking and approach, in striving to achieve those ends.

But initially at least, the Conservative Party has to focus far more on what those ends should be, and far less on the means of delivering them.

The time will come for the policy lever.

But four years away from a General Election, with the world changing faster than ever, this would be a very silly time indeed to start committing ourselves to narrow policy specifics.

So what now, if not policy?

I'll tell you what.

Values, vision, beliefs, hopes, and dreams.

Now I know that these things are hard to summarise easily.

I know others are looking for answers that are crisper and more tangible.

But the time for ten-word slogans will come.

You see, politics is about people.

Politics is about delivering a vision, based on a core set of values.

Politics is about telling a powerful story with real substance.

Only then can you reduce that story to policy specifics that are snappy enough to influence the 'ballot-box moment'.

Your story can begin, and it can end, with ten words, or even just five but, in between, it needs to be made flesh with hundreds, if not thousands of them.

That's why we need to start today not by launching numerous detailed, distinct, and specific policies but by painting vivid pictures, and telling compelling stories, about what life would be like in Conservative Britain.

I believe the Conservative Party's aim should be to give people security and hope and to help them achieve fulfilment in their lives.

Government alone cannot make people happy.

But it can ensure that its net contribution to people's happiness and well-being is always a positive one.

So when we, as Conservatives, seek to set people free, to trust them, and to give them the best possible opportunities in life it's actually helping them fulfil their potential today, and giving them hope for an even better tomorrow.

Because we believe that people, in the pursuit of their own happiness, will take better decisions for themselves that any politicians or bureaucrats ever could.

When we think about issues like healthcare and social security, we should do it knowing that, without such universal safety nets, people would feel hugely insecure.

When we argue for a strong economy and for growing wealth, we should be mindful that they are just means to an end.

Because we know that, by supporting our public services, and by helping people to live their lives as they want, wealth helps to generate security and happiness.

When we consider the values that the British people associate with their country - decent, tolerant, fair-minded, respectful, and equal - we should remember that it makes them feel secure and hopeful for the future to live in such a country.

And we should remember that it would make them unhappy ever to think that their country, or their government, was failing to live up to those values.

And finally, when we argue for tough-minded approaches to things like policing, asylum, or government spending it should not be because particular policies give us some ideological thrill.

It should be because there are growing problems to be dealt with that, if not addressed, will end up reducing people's well-being in the long run.

Now is not the time for details.

It's only July 2005 and we should not get ahead of ourselves.

Right now, if we could just begin to convince people that we're serious about making a commitment to the big and the small things that make their lives that little bit better, then we would have taken a giant step on the road back to power.

I think you, as local councillors, know all this.

I think it's what you do every day for the residents you serve.

And I think you understand, better than anyone, how politics is all about what you do for people, not about how you do it.

That's why I believe it's so important that you play a full part in the election of our next leader.

That's why I find it ironic that, at a time when my colleagues seem so keen to hand over endless powers to local people, they want to take all powers away from our own local community.

They'll let you vote for your local sheriff, but not for your party leader.

And that's why I urge each and every one of you to write to your MPs, to your members, to the Party board and fight for all you are worth to protect your right to have a say in the future of our great party.

Because if we want to change this party, and, ultimately this country for the better we can only do it together."

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech