At the moment, nearly every day, I read newspaper headlines about how the Government is taking steps to prevent Romanians and Bulgarians from coming here simply to claim benefits. And in every Autumn Statement and Budget, the Government promises yet another crusade to slim the welfare budget.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s important that policymakers properly manage immigration and our welfare system. But it is misguided for the Conservative Party to make these issues so predominant, to clear everything else off the decks. Essentially, Downing Street’s messaging is currently narrow and too negative.
There was a generation of people in their twenties and thirties who were drawn to a modernised Conservative Party at the end of the last decade, who worked and campaigned hard for the party. They were attracted to the newly found optimism, open-mindedness and humanness of the party. There is a danger that the buzz and momentum around that modernisation is being lost.
The determination to find new ways to tackle poverty, beyond just mere cash transfers, stressing the role of parenting and a “Big Society” too, enthused the progressive-minded. There was a willingness to embrace new ideas – not just blindly following old ideological assumptions – to tackle a range of issues people deeply cared about: better schools and hospitals, the quality of childhood, the local environment. Cameron talked the language of families, not just about pounds and pence.
This liberal conservatism thrives across Whitehall department with positive and creative policy-making. But it is under the public radar, as Number Ten increasingly narrows its messaging and reacts to agendas too often set by opposition parties, Labour and Ukip.
What I find inspirational about Conservatism, and many others do too, is how positive it is about people’s potential, no matter their background or identity. Conservatism should always get behind and reward those working hard to succeed in life, trying to break into the labour market, the housing market and the world of business. This includes the overwhelming majority of immigrants and those on benefits.
Yet, policy attention on immigration and welfare is unbalanced at the moment. It’s cap central. A cap on immigrants. A cap on benefits. Strangely, no cap on pensioner benefits – which includes free TV licences and bus passes for the wealthy – which constitute the majority of the welfare budget.
Universal Credit, mired with technical problems, is stuck; sad, as it offers a positive vision for those trapped in worklessness, disentangling the complexity of a system where withdrawal rates often make work unworthwhile. So other positive policies are desperately needed, or more pessimistic noises on welfare will prevail. Raise the minimum wage and reward jobseekers who get into work quick.
On immigration, sure, ensure the relatively small amount of abuse of UK generosity is thwarted; but streamline visa applications, and take students out of the immigration cap, to show we’re also fully behind the brightest and the best coming here.
Ultimately, the Tories need a balanced position on immigration and welfare: that’s where the public are. But surely we came into politics, into government, to do much more than address the relatively small amount of abuse of our welfare and immigration systems? Broaden the message, talk about issues which deeply affect the majority of people: for instance, ideas to give more choice for parents to get their children into a good school, to make healthcare more responsive and humane, and to make the internet safer, especially for children. Ultimately, there must be a positive vision from Conservatives to win voters at the next election: a society where ambition and effort is always supported, and where families and relationships come first.
Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue