Psst! Whatever you do, don’t tell the Tories democratic reform is in their own best interests

A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Conservative Home offering some unsolicited advice to David Cameron’s party. I argued that a party that had achieved electoral success in the 1980s by appealing to the classless entrepreneurialism of aspirant ‘Middle England’ had once again become established in the electorate’s eyes as the party of established wealth and privilege. If the Tories want to regain the voters they have lost, they need to take drastic action to counter that view.

Reform of the House of Lords was one policy area I said the Tories should seek to make their own, to confound such public perceptions:

… the Conservatives need actively to promote policies which favour meritocracy – that the best can make it through their own efforts, not because of who they know – a value not currently associated with Mr Cameron’s party. For sheer shock value, the Conservative leadership could do worse than re-assert its manifesto pledge to support an elected House of Lords, a Clause IV moment that would help the electorate to take seriously the party’s claim to represent more than just its own vested interests. Reform of the upper house is not in itself a big issue (nor, for that matter, was Clause IV), but it would be a deeply symbolic gesture that shows Conservatives opposing the ‘old boy’s network’ of patronage.

The last few days have shown how wedded the Tories remain to the Lords as it is, in spite of polls showing only 5% of the public support a wholly appointed revising chamber stuffed with political appointees — many of them the very people the voters have ejected from the Commons. Conservative by name, conservative by nature, I guess.

Yet the odd thing is that turning their face to reform really does work against the Conservative party’s own best, long-term interests. Benjamin Disraeli, David Cameron’s political hero, understood just that when he embraced the idea of expanding the electoral franchise, much to his old-school party establishment’s chagrin, by introducing the 1867 Reform Act.

Nor is this the first time we’ve seen the Tories fail to grasp that reform can be their friend. It is some irony that it is those Tories who were most viscerally opposed to electoral reform who worry most about the rise of Ukip. Yet Nigel Farage’s mini-insurgence would be of little consequence to Tories, most notably in the Eurosceptic south-west where first-past-the-post may help the Lib Dems to fend off a Tory challenge, if voters could rank their preferred parties and candidates.

There is an odd lack of self-confidence within the Tory party. For all their talk of the wish to build a Conservative majority at the next election, they seem perversely unwilling to try and do so by persuading a majority of the public to back conservatism at the ballot box.

I suppose I should be grateful the Tories haven’t yet grasped that their best hope of keeping Britain conservative is to offer the people true democracy. This country is, I believe, instinctively a small-c conservative nation, culturally and economically. It’s a painful realisation for a liberal. However, I’m also a democrat who believes in the legitimacy that flows from decisions made by elected representatives. And I would rather win the liberal argument by getting the backing of a majority of the people than by thwarting their collective will.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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9 Comments

  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd Apr '12 - 12:28pm

    Quoting Stephen Tall’s article: ‘There is an odd lack of self-confidence within the Tory party. For all their talk of the wish to build a Conservative majority at the next election, they seem perversely unwilling to try and do so by persuading a majority of the public to back conservatism at the ballot box.’

    And the Liberal Democrats should care for the Tories and their lack of self-confidence, and about whether the poor dears can win a majority at the next election because…?

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Apr '12 - 1:50pm


    I argued that a party that had achieved electoral success in the 1980s by appealing to the classless entrepreneurialism of aspirant ‘Middle England’ had once again become established in the electorate’s eyes as the party of established wealth and privilege.

    An argument which is more about buying into Conservative Party propaganda than what the Conservative Party was and is actually about. Consider the two hallmark policies of the 1980s Conservative Party – the right-to-buy council houses and “Tell Sid” privatisation. Were either of those about entrepreneurialism? No. They were both about making money by doing nothing more than owning things. The Conservative Party was then, as it was before and is now, the party of wealth and privilege. These two policies had the aim of making ordinary people think they had joined the wealthy and privileged, they were master-strokes, they worked into sucking more people into thinking the defence of unearned wealth was a defence of them, and so making it politically impossible to act against it. The classic Tory position is not about wealth earned through effort, which is implied by that word “entrepreneurialism”. It is the old aristocratic position that money earned by work is dirty, and money gained by owning things or inheriting things is much more honourable. That is why the Tories tax money earned through work at a higher rate than money gained in other ways, and have a horror at the very idea of shifting taxation away from work.

    These 1980s policies started the madness which led to the economic mess this country is in now, as more and more people were sucked into this idea that working is not how you make money, no, money is made by selling houses and shares to each other. So a mountain of personal debt was built up as people tried to jum onto this money-making machine by taking our loans on houses and supposing this was an “investment”. It was more a Ponzi scheme than an investment, and like all Ponzi schemes has to come to an end when there is no-one left at the bottom to pay in, and now that’s where we are at.

    I think if Liberal Democrats were to have the guts to put it my way and challenge the very foundations (both the false ones and the true ones) of the Conservative Party, we’d be doing much better than what you are doing, Stephen – giving support to the Conservative Party by accepting their propaganda.

  • Bill le Breton 23rd Apr '12 - 4:41pm

    Following the results of the first round of voting in the French elections last night, did anyone else find themselves reflecting that there could be a large number of candidates in 2015 who campaigned against AV and end up regretting not having a sizeable UKIP vote redistributed to them in a second round of counting?

  • Bill le Breton 23rd Apr '12 - 4:57pm

    Matthew, we had the opportunity in 2010 to help make Cameron a C21st Disraeli (a point I made in a Liberator article in June of that year). In stead we helped make him a Bonar Law.

  • Helen Tedcastle 24th Apr '12 - 11:28am

    Quoting Matthew Green: ‘Stephen’s article was directed at Tories – he’s trying to lure them into rethinking Lords reform by appealing to their myths – not promoting those myths to a wider public. ‘

    Like you, I too understood what Stephen was trying to do – lure the Tories into reform – but like Matthew Huntbach, I’m afraid that this is really a hopeless case. The Tories have shown a singular hostility to what Liberal Democrats understand by reform. For Tories, ‘reform’ means either privatisation/marketisation of public services or swinging cuts hitting the most vulnerable.

    In government, Lib Dems have mitigated some effects of their right-wing ideological agenda ie: Pupil Premium, Youth Contract and lifting the poorest out of tax – these are truly reforming.

    But the party has paid a very heavy price for the instigation of these policies,when one examines the whole strategy and policy of the coalition government.

    To my mind, there is nothing whatsoever to be gained by trying to appease or appeal to Tories – we should be promoting our agenda and differentiating ourselves as much as possible from them.

  • Pete Carpenter 28th Apr '12 - 5:13pm

    I like the approach of appealing to Tories own self-interest as a strategy of bringing them on board with the House of Lords reform. This policy would have the biggest long-term advantage to the Lib Dems (after the failure of AV) but the only way to get it through, as with all constitutional change, is by building a consensus with all parties. This can be done either by showing huge public support (not there for Lords Reform), by making the case so clearly in favour of reform that a party cannot oppose it, or by appealing successfully to a party’s self interest.I fully see the logic in Stephen’s article (as I guess I would do as a Lib Dem) and I only hope that the arguement is recognised by tories too. They will need to point to something concrete at the next election to counter suggestion that they aren’t the party of the wealthy and “who you know”.

    On the other side Lib Dems also need to get consensus from Labour. Thsi should be easier as they have a greater tendency to support modernisation and reform, and they woudl likely benefit more from changes to the House of Lords. At the moment though they seem to be asking for a refurendum I think to try and take ownership of the issue and claim it as something they have influenced. A refurendum would potentially kill it – the public would be angry at the waste of money, divisions would emerge within Labour again as they did in the AV refurendum, as well as divisions within the Tories. With a divided message given during a refurendum campaign, and anger at the cost psoent on a refurendum, the public may well vote in protest against the political leaders of all the parties who all want an elected Lords. Instead Nick Clegg needs to point out to Labour that they never used a refurendum to bring about the major constitutional change of separating the Supreme Court from the House of Lords, therby introducing a separation of powers into the UK constitution for the first time in our History. Why – because there was broad political consensus and the public didn’t much care. If Labour agreed with that approach then, they shoudl agree with that approach now in the same circumstances and with a different topic – Reform of the House of Lords.

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