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By Bishop of Leeds
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Don’t call it a comeback - centrism and the Conservative Party

Siobhan Aarons

Siobhan Aarons

6 min read

Last month PoliticsHome wrote: the “Tory Moderates Are Gearing Up For A Major Comeback”.

In the words of LL Cool J, Don't call it a comeback, we’ve been here for years. For forty-seven years the Tory Reform Group has been the beating heart of moderate conservatism in the party – we challenged Thatcher’s stance on apartheid, championed gay marriage, called for more support for Hong Kong nationals and more recently have warned against leaving the ECHR.

At the weekend we hosted a One Nation Day conference with the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs, a group with nearly 100 parliamentarians in it, in which we discussed our founding mission to develop a progressive social and political philosophy based upon the concepts of One Nation. Policies fit for the modern age which will attract the modern voter. The need to do this feels more relevant than ever, as we navigate a political landscape marked by polarisation, economic inequality, and social discord.

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “we are reformers in the spring and summer, but in autumn and winter, we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at night." Now for the Tory Reform Group, we have our own One Nation remix which says that “we are reformers in every season and in every season we are Conservative”.  If the Conservative Party is going to stay a relevant major force in British politics we need to be both bold and moderate, radical yet rooted in tradition. And as we approach the 2024 general election, our commitment to being a strong, liberal-conservative, voice for the nation is steadfast.

Throughout the years the centre ground of the Conservative Party’s influence has ebbed and flowed. Under David Cameron’s leadership, being a member of the Tory Reform Group became the done thing to get ahead as a new MP and over the various Prime Ministers we’ve had since we have remained a dedicated friend to the party (if occasionally a critical one). We are not the rally rousing rebels of members seeking to depose the current PM, we want Rishi Sunak  MP and his government to succeed and believe that if they are able to address the offer to the voters then they can do so. Damian Green MP, chair of the One Nation Caucus, points to some of the leading voices around the Cabinet table who are deeply rooted One Nationers – Gillian Keegan MP, Alex Chalk MP, Victoria Prentis MP, Tom Tugendhat MP and now a new addition in Claire Coutinho MP. All of us are willing this government on.

And there is a genuine need for the work of the Tory Reform Group and the One Nation Caucus. Polling this week by YouGov found that the party is seen as too right wing on those issues which matter to the public whilst WPI Strategy’s research found 54% of voters won’t support the Conservatives at the next election. The party has to take stock and consider the type of conservatism we are offering to the electorate in 2024. If we have any hope of retaining the broad coalition of voters we secured in 2019 it needs to be a forward thinking, One Nation conservatism fit for the future. At our heart the Tory Reform Group believes that more needs to be done to address intergenerational unfairness. This doesn’t mean we have to scrap the triple lock to punish one set of voters to support another by the way, but we must show we understand the challenges facing those in their thirties and forties. It is by no means a coincidence that people are more likely to vote Conservative now when they turn 50. This means policies focussed on housing, rental reform, childcare costs, infrastructure investment across the UK (not just London) and greener policies which can lead to jobs and economic growth.

The party needs to offer the electorate more than just thirtysomething male councillors as future legislators

The loud voices in Westminster wanting us to renege on some of our 2019 manifesto commitments are wrong. Net Zero by 2050 is not only the right decision but also a commitment we made to the electorate in Boris Johnson’s winning manifesto. Parliament is already seen with scepticism by the voters, let’s not break any more promises to them. Those under 50 are turning away from voting Conservative, but they’re the very same people who care deeply about the environment and the legacy that we are leaving behind. The smartest thing this Government can do is continue to bring the Conservative Party with it on the transition journey to net zero and ignore the sirens beckoning them on the rocks. Playing only to the Conservative Party membership is risky – we need to remember that it is voters who will decide our fate in 2024. And the majority of voters broadly expect us to lead the way in tackling climate change.

Our offer to voters in 2024 also includes those we are putting forward to be the next generation of MPs. It would be wrong if I didn’t use this opportunity to address the feedback we had this weekend from members, backbench MPs and even ministers on the worrying lack of women being selected currently by Conservative associations. The party needs to offer the electorate more than just thirtysomething male councillors as future legislators. Something has gone amiss in recent months where just 16% of those selected since June in Tory-held seats are women. We cannot rest on our laurels of three female Prime Ministers; in this environment they would have struggled to secure a seat let alone a winning one. If the Conservative party is going to survive it needs to look and sound like the country it wants to represent -  a country in which the majority are women.

One Nation conservatives, centrists, moderate Tories, liberal conservatives – call us whatever you like - will continue to support the Government and make our case. The reality is that the country is looking at our party with uncertainty and worryingly flirting with Labour as a driver of change. A modern Conservative Party can thrive if we adapt and ensure we have policies which really offer something new to future generations.

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