Localism unites Tory campaign
Simon Jenkins writes an insightful piece about the dilemma that faces Conservative Party strategists today. He defines the battle for Cameron’s electoral strategy as a conflict between Steve Hilton (advocating a calm, centrist and non-specific approach) and George Osborne (promoting boldness and specifics). The formula that Jenkins suggests is a mixture of the two, safe vagueness about most things but real, radical boldness in pursuing the localist agenda that has come to form the heart of modern conservatism. I couldn’t agree more.
The Tories, like all British political parties, are a broad church. The Europhiles may have been mostly exorcised (except the charmingly pesky Ken Clarke) but there remain real fault-lines of disagreement. Some Conservative activists are very angry at the efforts that Cameron has made to bury purist neo-liberalism; some Tory MPs and Peers think ring-fencing the NHS is the worst (and priciest) kind of political posturing; many in the party remain unhappy that we will not be granted a retrospective referendum on the Lisbon Treaty/EU Constitution. These are just some of the issues upon which not all modern conservatives agree – being specific about them means risking unnecessary internal angst and, potentially, worrying the public.
But localism is a binding force for conservatives – from the front bench to the community activists. Its logic can be felt in policies from Gove’s education reforms to Mayor Boris’ radical coup to wrestle control of London’s policing. Conservatives do localism instinctively, it is a creed that can hold a broad church together in difficult times but, more importantly, it’s also popular. People can see the benefits of having a real say in how their town, city or region is run. They see the benefits that a strong, elected representative has brought the people of London. The public ‘gets’ localism too.
So whilst caution is to be advised in the run up to the election – Cameron knows he will not be forgiven for losing what many, deep down, believe is an un-losable election – this is one area where boldness may be rewarded. Cameron can, and should, lay out how his radical redistribution of power will work. He should start by expanding on the 20 cities that he has pledged mayoral referenda in – all unitary authorities should have a referendum on directly elected Mayors by the end of the first term. It seems to me that Jenkins’ strategy – Hilton plus localism – would give Cameron the meat he needs to seal-the-deal without frightening the horses.