Psst! Whatever you do, don’t tell the Tories democratic reform is in their own best interests

by Stephen Tall on April 23, 2012

A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Conservative Home offering some unsolicited advice to David Cameron’s party. I argued that a party that had achieved electoral success in the 1980s by appealing to the classless entrepreneurialism of aspirant ‘Middle England’ had once again become established in the electorate’s eyes as the party of established wealth and privilege. If the Tories want to regain the voters they have lost, they need to take drastic action to counter that view.

Reform of the House of Lords was one policy area I said the Tories should seek to make their own, to confound such public perceptions:

… the Conservatives need actively to promote policies which favour meritocracy – that the best can make it through their own efforts, not because of who they know – a value not currently associated with Mr Cameron’s party. For sheer shock value, the Conservative leadership could do worse than re-assert its manifesto pledge to support an elected House of Lords, a Clause IV moment that would help the electorate to take seriously the party’s claim to represent more than just its own vested interests. Reform of the upper house is not in itself a big issue (nor, for that matter, was Clause IV), but it would be a deeply symbolic gesture that shows Conservatives opposing the ‘old boy’s network’ of patronage.

The last few days have shown how wedded the Tories remain to the Lords as it is, in spite of polls showing only 5% of the public support a wholly appointed revising chamber stuffed with political appointees — many of them the very people the voters have ejected from the Commons. Conservative by name, conservative by nature, I guess.

Yet the odd thing is that turning their face to reform really does work against the Conservative party’s own best, long-term interests. Benjamin Disraeli, David Cameron’s political hero, understood just that when he embraced the idea of expanding the electoral franchise, much to his old-school party establishment’s chagrin, by introducing the 1867 Reform Act.

Nor is this the first time we’ve seen the Tories fail to grasp that reform can be their friend. It is some irony that it is those Tories who were most viscerally opposed to electoral reform who worry most about the rise of Ukip. Yet Nigel Farage’s mini-insurgence would be of little consequence to Tories, most notably in the Eurosceptic south-west where first-past-the-post may help the Lib Dems to fend off a Tory challenge, if voters could rank their preferred parties and candidates.

There is an odd lack of self-confidence within the Tory party. For all their talk of the wish to build a Conservative majority at the next election, they seem perversely unwilling to try and do so by persuading a majority of the public to back conservatism at the ballot box.

I suppose I should be grateful the Tories haven’t yet grasped that their best hope of keeping Britain conservative is to offer the people true democracy. This country is, I believe, instinctively a small-c conservative nation, culturally and economically. It’s a painful realisation for a liberal. However, I’m also a democrat who believes in the legitimacy that flows from decisions made by elected representatives. And I would rather win the liberal argument by getting the backing of a majority of the people than by thwarting their collective will.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.