This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
When I was a little girl, growing up in the far northern city of Carlisle, I was often told, ‘If you’re poor, you vote Labour, and if you’re rich, you vote Conservative.’ Somehow it seemed to stack up. Ted Heath spent his weekends aboard his yacht Morning Cloud, surrounded by a flotilla of finery, while Harold Wilson would be cheering on Huddersfield Town surrounded by his Gannex raincoat.
These iconic chaps personified the political divide for most of us and it was a stereotype that has doubtless kept generations of people away from the Conservative Party, notwithstanding their core principles and values.
Most of us at my school had little or no idea of party ideology and I don’t remember any adults around me who cascaded any real opinions either. Politics then, as today, did not engage most young people. It was just something that went on in the background and happened to be on the news each day. When I reached 18, most people I knew voted with their parents and joined their high street bank at the same time. It was uncritical and automatic.
Throughout the Maggie years, while I was at university and then a young professional, British society changed beyond recognition. As the destructive power of the unions was decimated, and society prospered, middle England replaced bi-polar politics as the kingpin of our democracy.
My own agenda was focused upon leaving relatively humble beginnings and seeking financial security. During Tony Blair’s time in office, I concentrated upon creating a prosperous business and having a family.
I merely glanced at newspapers and party politics was rarely a discussion point. I make no apologies and consider myself to be akin to most ordinary aspirational people in this country. You put your head down and get on with trying to make something for yourself and your family. There’s not much time or space for anything else – until you reach a certain point. It wasn’t until 2004 that I first considered becoming involved in politics.
Working out which path to follow wasn’t straightforward. I’d not explored my own party political ideology before in any detail and it seemed to me, as a political outsider, that there was little clear differentiation between the two parties. Something I recall being a constant media criticism at the time.
Tony Blair’s Tory robes, while becoming tired, retained a beguiling image adorned with a fulsome frill of social justice. For me this was an important feature and was something the Tories had failed to communicate – a sad omission for a party that has a very long tradition of social care and welfare at its heart, but it simply didn’t talk about it.
And so I had a look at New Labour, only to realise the image was a mere veneer. It was a cold and uninspiring six months which left me looking away from party politics again and seeking alternative routes for fulfilment.
My disillusionment was dispelled later in 2005 when David Cameron won the Tory leadership contest. His sense of fairness and clarity of vision for the party immediately caught my attention. He promised to redress the gender and diversity imbalances within the parliamentary party and he recognised that there was a whole generation of people out there who sought high living standards for themselves, but who also demanded social justice for all. David had the courage to set out an agenda for change that would modernise the party and the country. He rang my bell and I made enquiries.
My welcome as a new party member could not have been more contrasting from the previous experience some 18 months earlier. I was embraced and encouraged by certain very special people in my local association. As with entering any new organisation, the first people you meet and the initial few weeks are critical. Fresh blood goes off very quickly without circulation or nourishment and, certainly for me, our party showed no complacency in its approach. This is a key aspect for membership and candidate recruitment nationally and should not be underestimated.
The Women2Win organisation then played a special part in my development and they remain an important facet of our party’s modernisation.
The formation of an integrated raft of policy was a key aspect of Cameron’s vision and it required considerable research and analysis undertaken by a number of policy groups. I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the family division of the social justice policy group. This allowed me to contribute, and witness, the early development of a broad platform of proposals for strengthening our society including; underlining the importance of the family unit, the value of marriage, and a focus upon a hand-up rather than a hand-out in welfare reform. Putting social justice at the front line of policy thinking has, I believe, instilled public trust for Conservatives particularly within some less traditional voter groups.
Attracting and recruiting good new candidates, with experience beyond the political bubble, is fundamental to our party’s health and its future viability to govern. No matter how successful we are in this process, candidates still need to be selected before they can be elected and this critical task remains the remit of each local association. It is vital, therefore, that associations are presented with a diverse range of options.
In April 2006, Conservatives set out to deliver a promise by David Cameron to transform the parliamentary party at Westminster. In a highly controversial move, some 500 aspiring politicians on the party’s list of approved parliamentary candidates were reduced to a ‘priority list’ of around 150 candidates. The list focused not only on gender balance, but on diversity in every respect. The main benefit to the candidates who were included was that they could apply for a seat anywhere in the country, whereas others would need a personal connection with the seat in order to be eligible.
The critical issue here is, of course, who selects the priority list? In my own case, it allowed me to apply for Maidstone and the Weald, which is now my seat in Parliament. I still had to fight it out with almost 100 other applicants but it allowed me to be considered.
In the next election the need for new Conservative candidates is likely to be much smaller due to the reduced number of constituencies and the very high number of new MPs entering in the 2010 cohort. The value of a priority list is doubtful in such circumstances, but the basis of that initiative should never be forgotten. It may be that David Cameron has done enough to prime the pump, but only time will tell.
The contribution Cameron has made toward gender balance and expanding the diversity of our parliamentary party prior to the last election is undeniable. I would go on to argue that his support for the female agenda has not ebbed since he took office, contrary to opposition claims and media reporting.
Criticism has been levied for implementing policies that unfairly and disproportionately affect women. But the real issue here is that women have dominated in the sectors that have been most affected by the downturn, such as retail, accommodation and, of course, the public sector. Large savings have had to be made because of the dreadful financial legacy left by the previous administration and the outcome is unavoidable.
On the other side of the coin, this government has endeavoured to alleviate some of the pain by a package of measures and policies that directly benefit women. Examples would be: raising the personal allowance which has taken many low-paid working women out of paying tax altogether; proposals to extend the right to request flexible working and the option of shared parental leave giving women more choice in relation to employment when having children; protecting the lowest-paid public sector workers from the pay freeze; reforming the SureStart scheme to help working women with childcare needs; pushing for equal pay through transparency; pressing hard for more women in corporate boards. All of these measures disproportionately benefit women and in addition to financially orientated issues, there has also been a raft of measures to protect the victims of domestic violence – who are predominantly women.
Further, there is an ever persistent clamour in the media about greater Tory female representation in the cabinet. Opportunities for ministerial positions will continue to be limited by the necessity to share power with the Liberal Democrats but, as we approach two years into this Parliament, the new intake of 2010 are maturing in their roles and some will become ripe for promotion in the fullness of time.
Conservatives still have much to do if they are to achieve, and deserve, outright electoral success at the next general election. The push for greater diversity has only just begun and must be maintained. The leadership will need to assert a clear national vision beyond delivering on this Parliament’s essential economic agenda. And during the remainder of the term, a firm but fair approach to public services and social justice must be embraced and seen to be delivered to retain the trust of the wider electorate.
But credit where credit is due. Under David Cameron, the modern Conservative Party is becoming a true one nation party, comprised of a diverse collection of thoughts, ideas and individual life experiences from a much wider socio-economic and political spectrum than ever before. It is the way ahead for our country and it clearly separates Conservatives from the bland homogeny of the socialist solidarity model.
Helen Grant is the Conservative MP for Maidstone and The Weald. This text is from a forthcoming Demos Collection, out in April, featuring new ideas from female Conservative MPs