On the Outside: A fresh look at Conservatism
As we return to Welsh Party Conference season, we are treated to all manner of things that are part and parcel of being a political activist – from the catch ups with people you haven’t seen for a year, to the dinners and, of course, the speeches.
This year will be slightly different for me – when, ordinarily, I would be attending as either a member of the Conservative Party or as an employee of the Welsh Conservatives, I will be there in both a personal and professional capacity with Deryn.
After 18 years of working on and off in politics – from supporting Members of the UK Parliament to Members of the Senedd and working on several Welsh Conservative Manifestos – this will be a slight move away from the insider Conservative “bubble” for me. I think, though, my departure has made me ponder some of the greater questions surrounding politics today.
Turning to the Welsh Conservative Conference itself, there will be the crowd-pleasing speeches from the main Party leaders and MPs – both from Wales and the UK Government. They will be designed to show the main concerns the general public or Party membership will feel the strongest about, and how Conservative policies will seek to tackle them.
But, they will also highlight the fascinating combination of a Party which is in Government across the UK but is the Official Opposition in Wales. Much like the Labour Party in reverse.
Even though we will enjoy these speeches, they will only provide a slick overview of the policy machine which is behind the soundbite.
As the former Senior Researcher for the Welsh Conservative Group in the Senedd, the most impactful parts of a Conference, for me, are any take aways I can get from the Panel discussions. Although perhaps not as media worthy as a speech from the Leader, Prime Minister or Secretary of State, these small panels are a good way of finding common ground instead of the traditional, more adversarial style of politics.
There will be a number of these panels over the course of the next two days, ranging from the tourism industry, housing, health, rural Wales, education and transport. These topics, in themselves, should hopefully cover many issues that people are concerned about – although they do dance around the biggest concerns on the cost of living. Perhaps they will and, to be fair, elements of the cost of living I’ve given are not devolved.
However, the type of discussions from the panel will also be important – there are representatives on them who are not always of the same view as the Welsh Conservatives and could perhaps provide a new insight or angle on the problem. These won’t be echo chambers. Instead, they’re an opportunity for the membership and, most importantly, politicians and policy makers, to hear different perspectives and potentially come up with an alternative policy solution to a decades-old problem. They’re also not soundbites, speech crescendos or short-term promises, but instead they are a form of policy making (if we treat them as such and if they are run well). With good critical analysis and listening to an opposing point, they can show the potential chinks in the armour, they can test how robust a policy is, and they can even change a policy’s course.
The downside is, is that honestly, not many go to listen to the panels – the speeches add more excitement as members are often seen to see the “big” politicians. Instead, it should be those behind the scenes, those supporting the politicians, who can become the policymakers with one great idea.
And sometimes, these great ideas can be a compromise, a suggestion to the Government of the day that things aren’t working, so why don’t you consider this course? After watching countless Plenary sessions, some Government Ministers who foolishly say “well what would you do about it?" can and have been met with a response from Opposition Members who will intervene and reel off a list of policies. That’s how you engage and debate.
It also shouldn’t be about being more extreme to make your point – granted, you will get the Welsh media coverage; it may even make the UK national newspapers and thus you get your message to the electorate. But is this a good position to take in the long run? Will the electorate get bored of the personal attacks?
And yes, I’m talking both to the right and the left of the political spectrum.
It’s well known that there has been a shift towards the polarisation of politics and towards more extremist views on the right and left. It’s also clear that the current U.S. political landscape should serve as a warning, rather than a model. So, the political mudslinging between right and left has been more prevalent, both at different points in 2016. In June, Brexit divided the UK – from families to communities and to countries; and the election of celebrity Donald Trump in the US the following November is still sending seismic shockwaves among those living in the States.
And, to this day, all of us still battling over something which is deeply personal and private to every individual in a democracy – our vote.
Furthermore, these two large events, when the electorate surprised the established way of politics, seem to have preceded more extreme behaviour from those who didn’t get what they necessarily wanted - with each side blocking out the other’s point of view, and both childishly saying “you’re wrong” - without providing evidence as to why they are, or even a counterargument. This ultimately makes political activists turn to an echo chamber for validation, whether it’s the act of blocking followers or friends on social media (and in real life), when faced with a challenge or nuanced argument against their point of view.
It’s easy to fall into this trap, but can our representatives and political parties guide us out by stepping beyond political tribalism?
The situation described above seems to have been made even worse due to the economic and health damage caused by the COVID pandemic. Two years of intermittent lockdowns has meant that Governments across the world have had to pump money into their economies and pay people a wage when they are legally unable to be present at work, support businesses and provide substantial amounts to help healthcare systems cope, rather than collapse.
On top of looking for a solution to recover from COVID-19’s impact on our economies, the high inflation and squeeze on resources caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is also intruding on our way of lives. Aside from the sabre-rattling from all sides, making this the most precarious position the world has ever been in since the Cuban Missile Crisis over 60 years ago, this has caused vital gas supplies to have been shut off across Europe, as well as the interruption of manufacturing and shipments of vital food and resources, such as fertilizer, from Ukraine.
Taken together, what is clear from all of these situations, is that both people and politicians are looking for short term solutions to problems which will take years to recover from.
And that’s where extremist views will take hold.
So how do we try to step back from this position? It’s through our politicians being sensible, pragmatic and knowing that - while tempting - making incendiary statements to outdo each other will not help the majority of people who are just looking for an improvement in their lives.
It’s also by ensuring that the policies we propose are acceptable to the majority of people, not just the core voters. Sometimes this has to involve compromise or a long hard look at policies which are not working – and allowing thorough questioning from different points of view. That’s what makes an effective Government or Government-in-waiting – not the pernicious drip-drip of insults or pressing on with unworkable policies.
So, as we look ahead to the 2024 General Elections, and the 2026 Senedd Elections, and as those in the policy machine start to gather information, these questions and concerns should be firmly on our minds. When policy and Manifestos start to reflect inflammatory rhetoric, this is where the damage can be caused, and we become more polarised and more extreme. The public won’t vote for you automatically, nor will they believe you when you make big promises you can’t deliver (I see the 2019 Labour/Momentum Manifesto as the prime example of this!).
Given this polarisation, the bold and radical step would be to return to the centre ground. Populism, as seen in 2019, is now in danger of lurching into more dangerous territory. So, we must pull this back into what we set out to do in the first place: make people’s lives better. This goes back to the heart of “one-nation Conservatism” as set out by one of the UK’s finest Conservative Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli, so it’s not new, but it’s a step away from the continual division we’re facing in politics today. So, for every one keenly watching the Conferences this year, keep this in mind – our politicians should now be focusing on proposing rather than opposing to win over the general public in upcoming elections.
For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.
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