Five Things Cameron Should Include in His Conference Speech

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference in BirminghamA few thoughts on what I think David Cameron should include in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference this week…

1)      Staying the course on deficit reduction

One of David Cameron’s strategic successes in the lead up to the last election was to secure a mandate for austerity. He stood before the country and said that times were going to be hard, that we had a huge debt, and that the economy was not growing. And he explained that the only sensible response when facing huge debt is to reduce spending, which means everyone has to tighten their belts. With reduced spending, economic growth would return and prosperity would increase. Of course the return to growth has been slower than predicted. But the economy is now growing and unemployment is going down (it’s lower now than when Mr Cameron took office in May 2010). Now is not the time to go wobbly on the economic plan and risk the progress that has been made.

2)      Defend the 45p income tax rate

Labour loves to denounce the government’s “tax cut for millionaires”. But the evidence suggests that the 45p tax rate for the highest earners has actually brought in more revenue than the 50p rate. That’s more money to spend on those who need it most. More money for childcare, hospitals, infrastructure, etc. By opposing this policy, Labour is saying that they would rather punish the rich than help the poor. Mr Cameron needs to challenge Labour on their narrative about the “tax cut for millionaires” and explain why the 45p rate makes good economic sense. Right now Labour are winning the argument because they are shouting the loudest.

3)      Announce that marriage will be recognised in the tax system

It’s high time Cameron made good on his longstanding promise to recognise marriage in the tax system. This was a Conservative manifesto commitment, it was in the Coalition Agreement, and Cameron has said on numerous occasions he still intends to do it. Next week he should announce exactly when and how he’ll introduce it. To his credit, Cameron has always been an advocate for strong marriage and strong families. Over the last few years, however, all the political discussion around marriage has focussed on gay marriage (much to the despair of many conservatives). Earlier this year I asked Treasury Minister Greg Clark about this issue and he assured me that it is still in the government’s plans during this parliament. But time is fast running out.

4)      Recognise that Miliband has the right diagnosis but the wrong prescription

The “cost of living crisis” that Ed Miliband described is a powerful message. It will play very well on the doorsteps and during the campaign. Mr Cameron must acknowledge this problem but set out a different solution. Many people are experiencing a cost of living crisis. Part of the solution is to ask people to keep tightening their belts as the economic recovery continues. Another part of the solution is to set out clearer policies for helping those on low incomes (like taking more low earners out of the income tax). Another part of the solution is to encourage greater competition between energy providers so that bills don’t rise sharply. But Mr Cameron should be very clear that you certainly can’t solve the problem by legislating to prevent energy firms from raising their prices (the unintended consequences of which have been discussed in detail). 

5)      Be Positive.

Finally, the tone of Mr Cameron’s speech is very important. To those on the left, Ed Miliband’s speech was spot on in both content and tone. Where necessary Mr Cameron should rebut Labour proposals. But overall he should set out a positive, clear message outlining his vision for Britain. And he should highlight the government’s successes. There is much to be proud of: lifting more than 2 million low earners out of tax altogether; reforming the welfare system to make work pay more than benefits; bringing rigour back into the education system; opening 93 new free schools at the start of this new school year alone; a benefits cap to ensure that claimants won’t receive more than the average family earns; vaccinating, educating, and feeding millions of the world’s poorest people by sticking to the overseas aid commitment; and the list goes on.

These five are just a few that came to mind and are in no particular order of importance. I hope that at least some of them feature in Mr Cameron’s speech on Wednesday. 

UPDATE 28 Sept: The PM is obviously an avid reader of my blog. Just minutes after I posted he announced plans to give married couples a tax break. One down, four to go…

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On International Development Policy

If you are a British taxpayer, then right across the developing world are children who have been vaccinated against a multitude of deadly diseases because of you. Today millions of children are going to school for the first time – because of you. Fewer women are dying in childbirth – because of you. More AIDS sufferers than ever before have access to antiretroviral therapy and are thus living with, rather than dying from, their disease – because of you. British people should be proud of this.

This is an extract from an article I wrote on British International Development policy for ConservativeHome. The article coincides with the launch of a new policy pamphlet authored by Andrew Mitchell MP (published by the Legatum Institute).

I conclude the article by praising Andrew Mitchell and the government for sticking to the promise that they have made to the world’s poor, despite the challenging economic circumstances at home:

Many people who have served in government can take credit for ensuring Britain keeps its promise to the developing world. But perhaps the most significant of those is Andrew Mitchell. Mitchell has been called many things over the last six months, many of these it now appears were untrue. However, his lasting legacy – and perhaps one of this government’s most significant legacies – will be the commitment that is being shown to the world’s very poorest people.

Republicans Can Learn from the CSJ

Commentary CoverBack in February I posted some thoughts on an essay published in Commentary Magazine by Mike Gerson and Peter Wehner called ‘How to Save the Republican Party’. At the time I also submitted a letter to the Editor of Commentary Magazine picking up on the suggestion that the Centre for Social Justice could provide a model for the US.

The letter has now been published in the June 2013 edition of the magazine and I have reprinted it here:

To the Editor:

IN THEIR superb essay, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner highlight the considerable challenges for Republicans. As the authors state, the current troubles are not simply the result of a communications problem. In some key areas, policy needs updating, too. The big question is how.

In the final section of their essay, Gerson and Wehner suggest that a British think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), could provide the answer for the GOP.

The CSJ has been one of the most influential think tanks in the UK in the last decade. It was founded by the former leader of the Conservative Party (and current secretary of state for work and pensions) Iain Duncan Smith, following his 2002 visit to a deprived housing estate in Glasgow where he saw firsthand the damaging effects of poverty. Duncan Smith and the CSJ focused their work on overcoming the “pathways to poverty”: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness, and addictions. What accounted for the CSJ’s success and what can the GOP learn?

First, all findings and recommendations from the CSJ are firmly rooted in evidence, including the use of thorough public polling. The 2007 report Breakthrough Britain, for example, included two waves of polling, which collected the opinions of almost 50,000 people. In an era of pontificating and punditry when evidence can be relegated below opinion, this approach is powerful.

Second, the CSJ is a superb example of how politicians and policymakers can make the most of their time in opposition. The result is that once the Conservatives were back in government, crucial reforms were pre-packaged and ready to go. This gave the party a huge head start on the current welfare reforms that are being introduced in the UK (led by Duncan-Smith).

Third, the CSJ is a conservative organization with conservative beliefs and principles. However, it has never been bound by partisanship or tribalism. When the Labour Party was in government, the CSJ was actively engaged in working together with Labour MPs to see their policies implemented. Perhaps the best example of this approach is seen in the 2008 report Early Intervention, co-written with Labour MP Graham Allen. This report led to all of the main party leaders’ signing up to the new social policy of “Early Intervention.” This willingness to reach across the aisle has given the CSJ a coalition of supporters from different political spheres.

If it is to change in any meaningful way, the Republican Party must resist the temptation to do what many political parties do following defeat: repeat more loudly the same failed policies under the assumption that the people simply didn’t hear the message the first time around.

The Washington D.C. think tank scene is highly competitive. If, however, there is space for one more, modelling it on the Centre for Social Justice would be an excellent starting point. And the good news is that work has already begun at state level. The Georgia Center for Opportunity seems to be following the CSJ model. Perhaps it will be only a matter of time before we see this scaled up to the national level.

Nathan Gamester
Legatum Institute, London

*********

Commentary Magazine provides space for the authors of the original essay to also post their response to the published letters. Concerning my letter, Mike Gerson and Peter Wehner said this:

And we thank Nathan Gamester for his insightful letter on the Centre for Social Justice. We’re great admirers of the CSJ, and we believe there is much the Republican Party can learn from it.

Short-Termism

Short-termismShort-termism is a major hindrance to economic prosperity in the UK, says a new report published today. While I am sure this is true, I would add that short-termism is also a significant hindrance in political life too.

Perhaps one of the best examples of short-termism in politics is found in the campaign slogan of Ronald Reagan during the 1980 Presidential election. One week before the American people went to the polls in 1980, Reagan famously asked: are you better off than you were four years ago?

As a piece of rhetoric this is superb. As a basis for serious political discourse it is not.

While there are, no doubt, some policies that can be assessed after a single term in office, there are many that cannot. This is even more pertinent in times of austerity than in times of plenty.

Transforming the economic performance of a nation is not something that is achieved in a single term (I doubt very much whether it can be achieved in two). Not only is the path uncertain, but along the way it is inevitable that many – if not most – members of the public will be worse off than they were previously.

It’s like paying-off a huge credit card bill whilst expecting to live at the same high standard to which you became accustomed when you were spending all the credit in the first place. There’s only one way to do that: get another credit card and run up more debt, thereby exacerbating the problem and delaying the inevitable repayment.

It’s worrying that Ed Miliband has decided to adopt Reagan’s famous campaign slogan. Not because it is highly effective and will gain traction come election time (it is and it will), but because it ignores the bigger political reality: UK plc has run out of money. This country has huge public sector debt and regardless of who is in power after the next election we cannot keep spending more than we take in.

Asking the electorate if they are better off than they were at the last election is irresponsible. It implies that things can be significantly different under a new regime. The reality is that any government – whether Conservative, Labour, or Coalition – will need to make cutbacks that will be felt by members of the public.

To suggest otherwise is to prioritise short-term political gain over our future economic security.

Dinner with David Frum

DFrumAt the Legatum Institute we recently hosted a dinner featuring David Frum as the guest of honour. The topic of conversation was the future of conservatism (US and UK). Below is a short summary of the evening, which first appeared here

 

“Insult fewer people next time.” This was David Frum’s advice to the Republican Party following its defeat in the 2012 Presidential Election.  While this analysis is no-doubt deliberately facetious it can almost certainly be filed under the “it’s funny because it’s true” category of jokes.

Over dinner at the Legatum Institute David Frum explains that there are three dominant theories circulating inside the Republican Party as to why, in 2012, it lost one of the most winnable elections in modern history. The first, he says, is trivial, the second is false, and the third is pernicious.

Theory number one says that the Republicans were simply caught off guard by a better organised, more social media-friendly Democratic Party. This, of course, may well be true but it is not the reason for defeat. In fact, Frum suggests that the failure to be as well organised as the democrats was more a symptom of defeat rather than a cause.

Theory number two says that the Republican message on immigration was wrong. The Party failed to tailor its message towards non-white voters and ultimately paid the price at the polling stations. Again, there is some truth to this theory but it is not the main reason why the GOP lost in 2012.

The third explanation is that the Republicans were simply the victim of a huge historical tragedy in which the American public made a grave error in not picking the right party. Put another way, the Republicans didn’t lose the election, rather the American people failed in their responsibility to elect the right person! “If the customer doesn’t like what you are selling, that’s not the customer’s problem”, suggest Frum.

While these reasons may provide a partial answer, the primary reason why the Republican Party lost the 2012 election,  explains Frum, was much simpler than that: it did not have a message for middle class Americans. Rather than focussing on immediate issues such as jobs, Republicans instead focussed on a deficit reduction plan, the effects of which will not be seen for 20-30 years. That message, argues Frum, lacks relevance for the middle class American voter.

In a wide ranging discussion on the future of conservatism – on both sides of the Atlantic – David Frum concluded with another piece of advice to conservatives seeking election: to be successful conservatives need to have an inclusive message that is culturally relevant. On top of that, the manner of discussion needs to be more responsible, less socially reactionary, and less rage-filled. On this point he is certainly right. Let’s hope he is listened to.