The surest sign that a political party is on the rise comes at party conference, when a new generation of bright young things suddenly appears on the scene. You see them buzzing around in their sharp suits, armed with ambition and shiny-eyed optimism; the best set up groups to modernise their chosen parties with fresh attitudes and ideas.
Such is the decline of party politics that perhaps this phenomena belongs to the past. But it was most definitely noticeable on the left when Tony Blair became leader and rebranded his party New Labour. And then a decade later on the right when David Cameron took over the Tories, saying he was determined to consign the nasty party to the past. The legacy of such seismic shifts lingers for decades, detectable in the under-appreciated archaeology of politics.
Now Bright Blue, the youthful think tank that symbolised the charismatic appeal of Cameron to a new generation, has turned on the prime minister. Ryan Shorthouse, its energetic director, condemned the Conservatives for pandering to prejudice and anger as it responds to the threat of Ukip, warning that this will turn off those younger voters attracted to “the newly-found optimism, open-mindedness and humanness of the party”.
He is right to do so – and his warning should be heeded. The year 2013 has been a rather dismal and depressing one for the Tories, one that saw them drift away from the centre ground under the baleful influence of strategy chief Lynton Crosby. It is daft politics – what one influential commentator yesterday surmised as sleepwalking to a Labour victory. Not least since the dangers of pretending to be Ukip-lite were so clearly demonstrated by the humiliation of the Eastleigh by-election earlier this year.
More fundamentally, the party is throwing away perhaps the most cherished commodity in politics: the sense of optimism. The most successful politicians in recent times catapulted themselves into power by proclaiming a positive vision alongside a desire to shape the future. Think of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, even John Major in his early days. Across the Atlantic, think of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama – or on the flip side, those Republicans railing against modernity and much of their own electorate.
People prefer optimists to doom-laden pessimists. David Cameron, a man for whom this outlook comes naturally, promised “no more grumbling about modern Britain” in his victory speech after becoming leader, then famously told the Tories to “let sunshine rule the day” in his first party conference speech. This was a key part of his appeal as Tory popularity soared, especially given that the electorate takes in so little of the daily political concerns that convulse Westminster.
Now the party appears to be defining itself again by anger, fear and loathing; the grumbling has flared up, the soundbites seem relentlessly negative, the spin often crudely dismissive. All voters hear is a party banging on with hostility to benefit “scroungers”, Brussels bureaucrats, cosseted criminals, feckless families, “green crap” and, above all, hordes of evil immigrants. And with each speech, with each statement, with each headline, the reductive nasty-party stereotypes are in danger of being reinforced one more time.
This is driven by fear of Ukip, influenced by looming Euro-elections in May and inflamed by some muddle-headed misanthropes on the right. Taken on their own, some of the policies – although far from all are defensible. Taken collectively, the remorseless drip-drip of negativity corrodes the Cameroonian appeal, just as happened with his predecessors. It is helping to drive away women voters, who have been the bedrock of post-war Tory electoral successes alongside the younger voters who are the future – if there is one – of the party. Meanwhile sneering at metropolitan values, as some MPs do so often, is self-defeating when London is a key electoral battleground and the vast majority of voters live in urban areas.
The party’s reversion to pessimism comes as the economic landscape improves, leaving plenty of room for its tough fiscal stance to be leavened with large dollops of aspirational politics. The Coalition has won the debate on austerity; if you think otherwise, look at France and question why Labour never hails President Hollande these days. Now is the time to talk about creating a more balanced economy and fairer society; instead it feels too often that reforms to the welfare state are about retrenchment, rather than remoulding them to work better for those most in need.
Fortunately for the Tories, neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats have captured that elusive spirit of optimism, although Ed Miliband has made a few attempts to. The mainstream political debate is so driven by fear and riven with timidity that it was left to Ukip leader Nigel Farage to point out yesterday that Britain had a moral duty to take in some of those Syrian refugees fleeing in fear of their lives. Little wonder so many people are turned off politics when the fare on offer is so cautious, insipid, and uninspired.
In his annual Christmas message the prime minister tentatively mentioned his big society idea again, despite warnings from advisers. Now for the new year his party should stop being so pessimistic, quit the grumbling and, as our battered nation emerges from five years of economic darkness, revive that sense of compassionate optimism and belief in Britain.