Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Do the Tories need a Clause Four moment?

The Conservative Leadership news blog has a strange piece in which it is suggested that the proposed changes to the method of electing the conservative leader is Michael Howard's Clause Four moment. It seems obvious that a change to the electoral procedures for the Conservative Leader cannot be compared to Labour's dumping of Clause Four, which fundamentally changed the stated purpose of the party. It was this momentous resolution that enabled Labour to change the public's perception of the party sufficiently to become electable again. Looking back, this was perhaps a relatively easy step for the Labour party to take, as it was clear to anyone except the most dogmatic leftwing idealogues that the party could never again be elected on a platform of mass nationalisation. The change was important chiefly for its symbolism.

With the pendulum now having swung back, and with the Conservatives having lost a third election, it is reasonable to ask if the Tories now need their own Clause Four moment, and if so what should it be.

To my mind there are two reasons the Conservatives have performed so badly at recent elections. Firstly they are seen as intolerant - they are the Nasty Party. Secondly, the party fears what might happen to the NHS under the Tories.

The first of these, offers a chance for a Clause Four moment. The Tories now have a several MPs and a prospective leader who describe themselves as libertarian. A resolution at the party conference in favour of libertarianism would enable the party to show the public that it now considered itself extremist on matters of personal liberty, and so it would be able to rid itself of much of the Nasty party image it has had since the nineties. It would be difficult to persuade the blue rinse brigade of the need or the rightness of such a resolution, and it would be a big risk for a new leader to chance a rebuff from the membership. But this is the risk that Labour took for the electoral advantage of persuading the public that they had changed, and it was a risk which payed big dividends. Like the Clause Four change, a resolution for liberty would, for the Tories, be only an acceptance of the realities of twenty-first century Britain, in which a moralising party is unelectable.

Tories feel strongly that morality underpins the fabric of society, and they are right, but wrong in how to mould society to be the moral place they desire. As James Bartholemew shows in his book on the welfare state, and the related blog, the moral, self-reliant society they long for and look back upon has been destroyed by the welfare state. To get it back again, the party needs to reform the welfare system and not to demonise those who are in reality the victims of Labour's welfare policies.

A resolution for liberty. It has a nice ring to it.