The Tories’ manifesto was unveiled today. You can read it here. For goodness sake don’t go for the high resolution one as it will probably crash your browser. At a whopping 77 megabytes / 130 pages, I refuse to believe that anyone, not even its author, has read it all the way through. But you don’t need to, because, unlike Labour, the Tories have a narrative. Like all good narratives it serves as a shorthand for everything they plan to do. So rather than go through all those pages looking for problems, I’m focussing on the narrative and it’s problems instead.
How easy their narrative is to define (and remember, as I’ve just watched the launch) is indicative of its quality, authenticity and mental stickiness, which is what it needs to succeed. In essence they’re arguing that government is a part of, not apart from, society. “We are society”, said David. This is the Big Society (big) idea. It sounds like Blair’s Big Tent idea but it is different because it involves activity, not just listening. At its heart lies cooperation. Governance should be a bilateral, not a unilateral affair. Government should behave cooperatively, not just authoritatively. It should be smaller but more importantly it should be efficient and cost-aware, just like a successful business. It should not measure success by how much it has spent but by how much it has achieved.
I think it’s lovely, I think it could really work, but just not now.
Gary Gibbon, political editor of Channel 4 News, asked David the question that had immediately popped up in my mind: “Where is the evidence that people want to get up from the telly or the garden and do all these things you want them to do?” The response to that “cynical” view was that it was all around us. The New Schools Network is apparently inundated with offers. There are, we learnt, ”Teams of people waiting for a Conservative Government.” Everyone who has spoken to Cameron wants to “do more”, he says. He pointed to the appetite for volunteering and the positive response to his proposal for a National Citizens Service (I have no idea how that is measured). He said that society needs, “A government that trusts us to set us free.” He really believes that, ”People are longing to hear something positive”.
Call me cynical – it wouldn’t be the first time – but I think most people’s response to this Join In and Get Involved approach would involve their middle and index fingers. This is a lazy generalisation of course, but people loathe politicians, they are disconnected from the election and when asked, trot out the usual line, “They’re all the same”. I don’t blame them really, and so what a political party has to do, therefore, is somehow chime with that attitude, and you can see that that’s what DC is aiming at. He is trying the positivity, freedom and smaller government angle. As he said in closing, ”This is not the same old politics, the same old politicians standing up here and announcing a series of plans… it’s about coming together to tackle the social and economic problems we have. It’s a new way of doing politics.”
I can’t help feeling that it would be better, safer, to make the narrative more along the lines of, “We know you’re not interested, but there are some things that need sorting out and we’re going to do that. We will sort out the economy without damaging public services or taxing you to the hilt. In the meantime you can get on with your lives.” In other words, doing the job of government quietly, working as a behind the scenes enabler for the public’s wellbeing. If I were Gordon Brown this is the line I would be taking. Nobody wants to get involved, people want you to shut up and go away, but also sort the country out. (What Gordon being Gordon actually said in response was, “They [the Conservatives] are saying, ‘You’re on your own’”, which is clearly the exact opposite of what they’re saying, but there you go. That’s Gordon. Not flash, just rubbish at politics.)
The thing is, as Cameron clearly demonstrated in a minute-long impassioned rant about Labour and big government (see video above), he really, really believes this stuff. So he hasn’t sat down and thought, what do people want to hear, but how do I, we, the Conservatives, believe a country should be run? And this is his answer. It’s preference shaping instead of preference accommodation, and in my opinion it’s a noble aim. If it works it’ll be a bigger victory than most will realise. I would be delighted if he turns out to be right about the latent positivity and wish to cooperate within the British people. To be honest, though my fingers are crossed, for this election at least, I’m not convinced.