Speech by the Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, to the Social Market
What Went Wrong
?We are here because we seemed to stop listening.
The general election of last year did not mark the end of a nation bound together by the instincts of Conservatism.
We have not experienced the strange death of conservative Britain.
If you doubt that you only have to look at the strenuous efforts Labour is now making to ?rebrand? a country which they still fundamentally distrust despite the trust the country has put in them.
?Britain is still a conservative country, that is why Mr Blair is so intent on trying to abolish it.
?But it is a conservative country which stopped trusting the Conservative Party to speak up for its interests and its concerns.
?After 18 years of successfully providing the solution to the British disease, we came to be seen as one of the main problems facing the country.
Many people felt that we no longer laid out a vision which was relevant to the new challenges facing the country.
They thought we had forfeited the right to act as the authentic voice for our nation.
?We had shown the country that there was a better way than Socialist decline and encouraged the nation to take it.
But we seemed to have lost our own way as a party and as a government.
The sense that we had a mission disappeared and with it the ability to recover from the mistakes that all governments make from time to time, or to carry people along with us even when they disagreed with specific aspects of our policy.
?In the high days of the 1980s and into the 1990s, a vote for the Conservative Party united the national interest with self interest.
Building up your own business, supporting your family, saving for the future; all these things were good in themselves and they were also good for the country.
Extending opportunity and freedom brought prosperity at home and security abroad.
But once we had overcome the threat posed by overmighty trades unions, Soviet domination, even an old-style socialist Labour Party, the need for the Conservatives seemed to be less and less.
The British public tired of us, as we ourselves appeared ever more tired.
?We identified no new dragons to replace those we had slain.
We offered no recognition that there were new problems and challenges to be faced beyond those we had inherited in the late 1970s.
People?s concerns had moved on, while our agenda stayed the same.
By failing to come up with new policies which were relevant as well as right, we managed to pull the unique trick of seeming dogmatic and appearing to lack direction at the same time.
Worst of all, stripped of our national purpose, a vote for the Conservatives seemed to many to have become a self-serving, greedy vote.
?This is where we found ourselves last May.
Because we seemed not to listen we lost the ability to speak for our country, a dreadful state for any political force but particularly for a Conservative Party.
That is why we are embarking on our exercise of ?Listening to Britain?.
Listening to Britain
?Now there will be some people, perhaps a few of them in this room, who regard any programme of ?listening? with suspicion.
The very process smacks of that old management consultant adage of borrowing someone?s watch to tell him what the time is.
Our opponents will paint it as the last resort of a party which has run out of steam and run out of ideas.
They will look back to Labour?s work with focus groups and point out what we said about them.
But the lessons we draw from our defeat are different from those Labour drew from theirs.
We are not seeking to ditch Conservatism the way Labour tried to ditch Socialism.
Socialism failed to solve the problems of the ?60s and ?70s.
The electorate could see that.
But Labour were painfully slow to realise they needed to jettison their most cherished beliefs.
By contrast, Conservative principles succeeded in tackling the enormous problems of the ?80s and ?90s.
The electorate could see that.
And their attention turned to other issues.
?The Conservative Party seemed to them painfully slow to realise it had succeeded in solving those problems.
It seemed to go on picking at them like at a scab that has healed.
?So we need to move on and apply our successful principles to tackle new issues which preoccupy the electorate.
?Listening to Britain is about identifying people?s aspirations and the challenges, problems and opportunities which will face the British people as we enter the next century – so that we can apply Conservative principles to them.
?Let me make clear what our exercise is about and what it is not about.
Listening to Britain is not about asking people what Conservatives should stand for.
Nor is it about writing the next manifesto by opinion poll.
It is about ensuring that Conservative policies once more address the real concerns of real people.
?But we will address those concerns on the basis of Conservative principles.
Let me give you an analogy.
A car company developing its next model will consult and listen to its potential customers about their transportation needs.
But it won?t ask them to design the engine.
Still less will it ask them to tell it the principles of engineering.
The manufacturer will design its new model to meet consumers? needs on the basis of best engineering principles.
Likewise we should listen to people about their needs and concerns.
But we must then develop policies to meet those needs based on the best political principles – Conservative principles.
?A lobbyist who has recently become famous once said that ?the Tory Party is a brilliant brand let down by a lousy record of customer service?.
As we all know, Derek Draper is an expert on customer service!
?Our listening exercise is about identifying practical problems and applying Conservative principles to them.
Let me give you an example.
?In my constituency, I have always held small house meetings, inviting everyone in the neighbouring streets to discuss their concerns.
Just as Moliere?s M Jourdain found he had been talking prose all his life, I discover I have always been Listening to Britain – or at least to Hertfordshire.
?Towards the end of the last Parliament, I began to hear both young people and their parents asking how the state could pay for pensions in future as there would be more and more retired people living longer and longer.
?That is what prompted me to develop my plans for Basic Pension Plus.
Listening to people helped identify the problem.
The solution was based on Conservative principles of
– extending personal ownership
– encouraging prudent provision
– protecting those who cannot provide for themselves
– and reducing the role of the state.
?Listening to Britain will involve similar meetings across the length and breadth of the country.
Some will be with the general public, others with people involved in a specific subject – nurses and doctors, teachers and parents, business people and trades unionists.
?We will not just be interested in talking to the great and the good, still less just the experts in any area.
?One thing experience in government has taught me is that those most involved in the practical delivery of a service become aware of the changes and problems coming over the horizon long before the commentators, the civil servants and the politicians do.
We must listen to those at the sharp end to learn about the issues which will dominate the future policy agenda.
?We will tackle that agenda on the basis of our Conservative principles.
?These principles are familiar ones. The belief that government should play a necessary rather than a sufficient role in national life.
The conviction that a decent society should help those who have suffered misfortune, but that individuals should take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions.
The trust we place in mutual co-operation to settle differences and solve problems so that state intervention becomes a last resort not a first choice.
An attachment to institutions which evolve to incorporate the experience of the ages and a suspicion of doctrinaire upheavals which replace that by the fashion of the moment.
Above all, the faith we place in the intrinsic creativity of individuals, as social beings as well as economic actors, to make our society and our economy richer and more diverse.
?By contrast, New Labour have no principles, just a mission to capture tomorrow?s headlines and a series of focus groups to tell them what people would most like to read in the newspapers.
The ?Third Way? between socialism and capitalism turns out to be journalism.
The problems with this Third Way, this pursuit of the headlines, this politics without principle, are already becoming obvious.
?A Government without principle spends too much, giving in to every lobby group and vested interest that puts pressure on them.
Labour is listening to lobbyists, Conservatives will be listening to Britain.
?Old Labour had its favourite lobby groups based on sentiment and tradition.
New Labour has its own favourites based on hard cash.
?And with more spending, comes higher taxes.
But, of course, a Government without principle will not wish to admit this.
So the taxes are hidden in complicated measures which don?t trouble the tabloids.
?Along with higher taxes, comes more regulation.
To a Government without principle, panic regulation with all its costs is better than bad news coverage.
That?s why they banned beef on the bone.
?Yet another hallmark of Government without principle is constant resort to central initiatives.
What matters to Mr Blunkett, for instance, is not whether some new education idea will help pupils, it is whether it is big enough to get him on the 10 o?clock News.
He interferes and centralises and regulates to ensure that he gets credit for innovation in schools.
?That ?man from Whitehall knows best? approach is simply outdated.
It is inadequate for a world which has become more complex, more competitive and more demanding.
Instead of talking about ?The People?, we will actually listen to people with a small ?p?.
We will make sure our principles ? the principles of freedom and choice, of responsibility and mutual obligation, of family ties and a sense of nationhood ? are applied to create policies which are relevant to the challenges people face in their everyday lives.
?We will apply these principles in a Britain which has in some ways changed dramatically. As a nation we are three times better off than we were at the end of the Second World War.
We are living longer and healthier lives.
We are more socially mobile.
We are better informed and more sceptical about the world around us. Above all we are used to making more choices and taking more responsibility for ourselves.
?But alongside these changes in our circumstances, the instincts of the British people remain broadly the same.
We are concerned first and foremost about our families and friends.
We value the ties that bind us voluntarily to our communities, our places of worship, our colleagues and our nation.
We want to help those who are not sharing in general prosperity and who are not able to gain directly from the freedoms and opportunities which we ourselves take for granted.
?Make no mistake.
As we enter the new millennium, Britain faces enormous challenges.
The challenges – of new technology,
– of global competition,
– of social and demographic change.
Together these will transform our economy, our society and our ways of living.
They will create enormous opportunities as well as huge problems.
?Although we know the broad forces for change, their impact will be complex and manifold.
We are already beginning to see how they impact on people?s lives.
These changes are generating hopes and concerns which we will need to respond to as we listen to groups of people round the country.
?For the family, the years ahead should be a time of greater opportunity.
We need families to provide the bedrock of our society and a stable environment for our children to grow up in.
They are becoming more prosperous.
Many more mothers are now working part-time, because they want to and because we made it possible for them to do so by creating a more flexible labour market.
As a result direct household incomes are rising.
?At the same time everyone recognises that the family is under strain.
The divorce rate is up.
And as people live longer more of them will need care, some from relatives at home.
?We will be listening to families where men and women are trying to combine the responsibilities of bringing up children or looking after relatives with working to boost the family income.
?As we become healthier and wealthier as a nation, it is natural that we will want to devote more attention to increasing our quality of life.
We have grown used to exercising choice and making our voice heard across a wide range of private services, and would like a greater say in what we receive from our important public services.
We also know that standards in healthcare and education must improve if we are to grasp the potential of new technologies and maintain the common values of a civilised and decent society.
?We will be listening to parents and patients who want a greater say in education and health.
?People who work in the public services understand these increased expectations.
Many would like to take greater responsibility for the way in which public services are delivered so that they can tailor the services they offer to their customers and shape their own careers more directly.
At the moment we know they are struggling to do this, not only because of the inevitability of tight budgets but because they are constantly second guessed by the dead hand of bureaucracy.
?We will be listening to teachers, doctors and nurses who want more independence to find the best way of raising standards.
?Then there are those who give up their spare time to help their neighbours at home and people abroad.
The ranks of volunteers are being swelled by part-time workers and active senior citizens who want to become more actively involved in their communities.
They deserve our support and our recognition.
But they also need protection against the encroachment of rules and regulations from government which sometimes undermine the very ethic of the voluntary sector.
?We will be listening to church groups, charities and volunteers about how to help those who fall through the welfare net and how to strengthen families and communities.
?The impact of modern, cheaper communications has brought the world closer together than ever before.
International capital markets can now switch enormous sums of money from one country to another in seconds.
?The spread of market liberalism has brought us more trading partners, but also stiffer competition for customers.
We know that the pace of change is only likely to increase and that Britain risks being unable to respond because taxes are increasing and regulation is growing.
?We will be listening to business as it strives to become more competitive in a globalised marketplace.
?As competition grows and the demand for knowledge-based workers increases, so the gap in earning power between brawn and brain is likely to grow.
This is good for us as a country which uses technology extensively.
It should allow us to keep on growing as we have done over the past 50 years.
It may even allow us to grow faster.
But within our country it raises serious questions about those who have been unable to share in this rising national prosperity.
?We know that ways must be found of spreading opportunity, choice and responsibility to as many sections of our society as possible.
?We will be listening to those without work to find the most constructive way of helping them.
?Personal freedom and affluence has made our country more mobile than ever before. People have the opportunity to own cars, their own homes and generally to live more independently than their parents and grandparents did.
These are all positive developments, but they also potentially place a strain on our environment, the ability to sustain it and to pass it on to our children and grandchildren. We know that all of us have a responsibility to maintain a decent environment for future generations, along with the wealth generated by using the world?s resources.
?We will be listening to people from all generations about their views on how best to strike the balance between consumption and conservation.
?Amid all this change, people?s primary loyalties remain to their families, their neighbours and their nation.
Even as trade and the media bring us into more contact with other people and influences, we remain attached to those things which define us as a people.
How else does one explain how Mr Blair?s ?coolest city in earth? became a ghost town two Tuesday evenings ago?
We understand that people enjoy the opportunities to travel, to do business and to experience other cultures, but they want to retain a sense of place and common identity.
?We will be listening to Britain, an outward looking, free trading and cosmopolitan country with a deep attachment to those freedoms and institutions which bind us together as a nation.
?This is how we intend to apply firm conservative principles to people?s everyday lives. This is what sets us apart from our opponents.
New Conservative Thinking
?We could of course simply sit back, wait for Labour to undermine our economic legacy and reap the political benefits.
The signs are already ominous.
Rising interest rates, our manufacturing industry in recession, and the Iron Chancellor busily cooking the books on public spending.
?When the time comes for us to produce policies we will have to address the damage that Labour has done to this country?s ability to compete economically.
?It isn?t only the extra costs they have imposed on employing people or the red tape they are loading onto firms.
It is the entire way they have sucked business in to the process of politics.
We are seeing the emergence of a new corporate state, where some of our leading business people are asked to spend as much time playing the political system as they do delivering services to their customers or generating profits for their shareholders.
?From the listening we have done already we know that people feel uneasy but prosperous.
After a couple more years of Labour they may not even have prosperity to fall back on. But we shouldn?t wait for the economic cycle to run its course.
We need to take this opportunity to address the non-economic issues which are causing people concern, and nail once and for all the idea that conservatism is purely an economic doctrine, or that we are purely the party of economics.
Questions of identity, order, institutions and a sense of nationhood matter.
?The roots of this feeling of social insecurity and the looming economic difficulties we face lie in the same place, in Labour?s instinct to centralise.
?We are becoming a country where we are told what to eat, what not eat, what is cool, what is pass?, what being British means, what it no longer means.
Labour lectures Britain, while we are seeking to listen to it.
?This difference of approach will come through in our policies, as we find imaginative and sensible solutions to the problems we encounter.
The common theme is devolving power either directly to people so that they can exercise a choice, or to independent civic institutions with which people can identify locally, or within public services to give dedicated professionals greater responsibility.
?We know from our own experience that this is far more effective than the Secretary of State taking responsibility for every last bedpan and stick of chalk.
?It is diversity that generates best practice and helps to spread it, not central government diktat.
?When we gave family doctors control over their own budgets and the right to make contracts directly with hospitals, patient services improved.
Labour has removed that right and waiting lists have grown.
?When we allowed schools to escape the control of poor performing local education authorities and gave parents a greater right of choice, standards improved.
Labour has handed control of grant maintained schools back to those same LEAs who presided over failure in the first place.
?The problems that Labour are now experiencing in meeting their own pledges on waiting lists and class sizes, let alone improving standards in the classroom or the doctor?s surgery make our point for us.
Local services must have the freedom to innovate if they are to have the power to improve.
Loyalty and interest in local institutions comes when they are effective and when they have the ability to make a genuine difference to people?s lives.
?This is the point that Conservatives here and in other countries have grasped; creativity in building social institutions is no more a monopoly preserve of the state than is creativity in building a dynamic economy.
You only have to attend a meeting of the local Parent/Teachers Association or Friends of the local hospital to understand that.
In dealing with social issues like the resilience of the family, the lessons of experience and conservative principle are the same.
The temptation to impose a pattern of behaviour from above is always a mistake.
?The family was not invented and should not be imposed by the state.
?But the state can and all too often does sap the strength of families and undermine their standing.
?We should be looking for ways to bolster family life by strengthening responsibility and checking the tendency of governments to encroach upon their role.
?Thanks to the Social Market Foundation and to others, we can draw on some of these ideas about giving more freedom to schools and hospitals, reinvigorating local government, strengthening family responsibility and enlisting the profit motive to help get people back to work.
?Labour claims to have all the answers but in fact it has only one answer, more government.
I am reminded of Robert Skidelsky?s eloquent epitaph for the last Labour administration. It failed, he said simply, ?because its reach was greater than its grasp.?
Its successor exhibits the same characteristics.
?The Conservative Party is setting out on a different road.
We understand that in an increasingly complex world, no one and no particular party has a monopoly of wisdom and experience.
?That is why we are now committing ourselves to listening to people, as well as to professional groups, to academics and to think tanks to hear what they have to say about the challenges ahead.
?To succeed, Conservative policies must be relevant as well as right.
?We must reflect people?s everyday experiences as well as reaffirm our principles.
?Listening is not a luxury but a necessity for the future of our Party.
?Never again will people be able to say that the Conservative Party is out of touch.
?Only if we listen to Britain will we win back the right to speak for our nation.?