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Rifkind: Winning back the centre ground is not an option, but a necessity

Speech to Conservative Mainstream

"The Conservative Party has begun its debate about how to take forward its renaissance and win the support of the people of Britain.

We have begun that debate but we must be careful that it is the right debate.

So far, much of the contribution has been about the personalities involved. Whether the next Leader should be in his or her 30s, 40s or 50s. What background he should come from. Whether it will help if he has been to a state school or a public school. Whether focus groups will be attracted or unimpressed by him.

These are subjects of endless fascination but unless we can rise above them we are wasting our time. Within three months of the next Leader being chosen the public will, quite rightly, have lost interest in his or her background. They will, however, be very interested in what the Conservative Party is saying about the future of our country, about our ideas, our policies and our aspirations.

Today's debate should, therefore, address these fundamentals. At this stage even policy proposals are less important than our identity, our beliefs and the sort of Britain we want to see for this and future generations.

It is also essential that the Conservative Party must articulate what it stands for and not just what it is against. We must campaign on our hopes and not just on our fears. We must enable the public to have a real awareness of what a Conservative Britain would be all about. We must interest and, hopefully, excite and move our fellow citizens.

That also means that our programme and our policies must give equal weight to all the issues that are of importance to the nation. In 2001 the public had the impression that we were pre-occupied with Europe. In the recent General Election they felt we were pre-occupied with immigration and asylum. These were real issues that needed to be addressed and we had much to say on health, education and other matters. But the public were not convinced that we were yet ready for government.

Nor were they convinced that we were speaking to the nation and not just to ourselves. The reality is that winning back the centre ground is not an option, but a necessity for the Conservative Party.

The state of the nation does not make it difficult to identify some of the priorities for the modern Conservative Party.

Firstly, we need to be a radical, liberating Conservative Party. Conservatives are not reactionary defenders of the status quo. Sometimes if you want things to stay the same, things have to change. There is much that still needs to change in Britain if we are to have equality of opportunity for all.

Secondly, we must use the next two years to win the hearts and minds of thinking Britain. New Labour is declining in front of our eyes. A confident, tolerant, moderate Conservatism could replace it. We must take that battle to the universities to the think-tanks and to the academic world. We must convince those who think of themselves as liberal and forward looking that they have more in common with us than with the arid, centralizing, bureaucratic pre-occupations of Gordon Brown and his ilk. Winning the intellectual battle helped secure 18 years of Conservative Government just as it helped to secure the last 8 years of Labour.

Thirdly, while choice in health or education must be a fundamental part of our policy, we need to recognise it as a means to ensure quality and not as an end in itself. We have not yet demonstrated how choice will be meaningful for the millions of people who live with poorly performing schools and inadequate hospitals. For them these are, quite rightly, practical not theoretical questions.

Finally, we need to champion tax reform. But here too we need to do far more work before we can demonstrate that such reform will be fair, equitable and do more good than harm.

Billions of pounds could be saved from a simpler tax system. Billions are wasted on expenditure with little real value to the public. But we have not yet begun to prove that to millions of our fellow citizens. Tax reform will need to be advanced on practical not ideological grounds if it is to be a political asset and not a liability.

I turn now to the priorities of the Britain of our dreams.

We need to be, and to be seen to be, proactive in the defence of the liberties of the citizen. These matters can no longer be seen as part of the armoury of the Left. Our rhetoric may be different from theirs, but there is a fine Tory tradition of freedom that goes back to Wilberforce and Shaftesbury.

In the modern context this is not just about Identity Cards which we will, rightly, oppose. It is also about the erosion of traditional freedoms that has been the hallmark of this increasingly authoritarian government. The onslaught on trial by jury, the desire to imprison people without trial or due process of law, the constant pressure by government ministers about how people should live their lives, the diminution of privacy, are all changing the nature of this country. Each might be defended in isolation. Cumulatively they are a real threat.

Conservatives must offer a new confident, open Britain where there is a natural, relaxed freedom, where people live the lives they choose and where the state is not the enemy of freedom but restricts itself to its proper concerns of administering justice and punishing the lawbreaker. That is not sentiment, but a need that will become a serious political priority.

Furthermore, there is in our country much we can be proud of, but there are few grounds for complacency. Although one of the most prosperous countries in the world, there are still millions of our fellow citizens who have a poor standard of living and considerable insecurity. Many are elderly or disabled.

Their hardships are unacceptable to Conservatives. We must build on the One Nation tradition of Conservatism and seek a major reform of our tax and welfare system to meet their needs. Only free enterprise can create the necessary wealth. That wealth needs to be used to help the many elderly, disabled and single people who no longer live as part of extended families. It needs to be used to help children growing up in deprived council estates and communities. Only a partnership of capitalism and government can reach that minority of our fellow citizens who do not yet share the prosperity of the majority.

A third theme for the Conservative Party is the urgent need to reverse the excessive centralization of the last twenty years. It began in the 1980s and has seriously accelerated under Labour. We need to return local power to local communities.

The County Councils and local government have been emasculated. John Prescott, sitting in his Whitehall office, now has more power over the building and demolition of housing in Hampshire, Yorkshire, Liverpool or Bristol than the elected representatives of these local communities.

Likewise, billions of pounds in the NHS have been wasted by the micro-management of Ministers in London imposing targets and penalties on hospitals in Newcastle and Cornwall. Schools and headteachers suffer the same interference as do Chief Constables trying to deal with the upsurge in local violent crime.

The Conservative Party will always find it easier than Labour to respond to this problem. We dislike big government and have promoted real reforms, in the past, transferring real power from government to parents, to patients and to council tenants.

We now need to promote a major transfer of real power from Whitehall to County Councils and to urban local government. People live in communities, and where responsibilities and the use of resources require accountability, local government can meet that need. Britain has more centralised government than most other Western countries and it is less true than ever that Whitehall knows best.

Privatisation has had a great liberating effect on many industries and activities. But there are many areas where a vigorous public sector will continue to be necessary. The NHS is an obvious example. But there is no reason, in modern Britain, why many of these responsibilities could not be administered by the elected representatives of the community at the local level. The Tories should be champions of a revived local government and of local democracy.

These are the kind of ideas which a confident and reinvigorated Conservative Party must promote. There are others equally relevant and important on which I shall comment on other occasions. They are what our debate should be concentrating on. They are the way we will reconnect with the nation.

There is a hard choice to be made.

We must make sure we make the right one."

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