Change has to be more than skin deep

Tory rosette
Tory rosette

Nick Boles has been fighting a lonely battle these past few years. Where for David Cameron and George Osborne, the whole modernisation project was clearly a cosmetic exercise, he was always a true believer. He is completely right to wonder how his party can build a broader coalition of voters, but wrong to think it can be achieved without real change.

Eight years after helping launch the modernisation project, he complains many people still “would not countenance voting Conservative”.  He says some think the Tories are the “party of the rich” and others “doubt our motives”. Having failed to persuade the Tories of the case for the complete change necessary to win the public’s trust, he has come up with a novel solution. He proposes reviving the National Liberals as some sort of “front” organisation to win the trust of voters he can’t attract to the Conservatives.

Such a plan would be doomed to failure, not least because the voters would see straight through it.

In politics, as with anything else, the communications have to reflect the reality. There is no point pretending you have changed. You actually have got to change. And the difficulty for Nick and other centre-ground modernisers is that the policies they have pursued in government show the Tory Party hasn’t really changed at all.

Nick claims a new brand and trumpeting policies like same sex marriage would persuade a new generation of young voters to flock to the Tory banner. But with a million young people out of work, the Educational Maintenance Allowance scrapped and tuition fees trebled, it will take more than that.

Ordinary families, £1,600 a-year worse off over the last few years and struggling to pay their fuel bills, will not suddenly be persuaded that the Tories are on their side by setting up a new National Liberal Party.

They believe, as Ed Miliband has pointed out, that David Cameron and his party always stand up for the wrong people because on fuel bills they stand up for the energy companies and not the struggling consumer.

Nick is right to recognise that many voters think they are the “party of the rich”. But it’s not really surprising that voters don’t think we’re “all in it together” when the first people in the queue for help are the very wealthiest to whom they gave a £40,000 tax cut.

David Cameron promised to “mend, not end” the NHS, but despite all his promises, he’s still not trusted with our health service because waiting times have rocketed, A&E services are in crisis and 6,000 nursing jobs have been lost, but billions were wasted on a bureaucratic reorganisation.

He also promised that this government would be the “greenest” and “most family friendly” ever, but investment in clean energy is at a seven year low and Sure Start centres are closing up and down the country.

And the reason he won’t be trusted with public services is because, just as he admitted last week, slashing spending and a smaller state were always the objective.

No amount of rebranding will persuade the public the Tories have changed their approach on all these issues and so many more. If Nick Boles wants ordinary families to trust the Tories, change will have to real and permanent.

Authenticity is the most important thing in politics. The public can always spot a phoney and they have found the Tories out.

Ian Austin is Labour MP for Dudley North

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