John Bercow: We must change. We looked nasty and visionless

Highlighting immigration seemed at best obsessive and at worst repellent
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The Independent Online

Tories can take little comfort from our election campaign, and even less from its result. In truth, the campaign was limited in scope, disciplined in execution and as successful as could be expected - ie not very. Our vote share rose by only 0.5 per cent, but we were rewarded with 33 extra MPs. Yet the daunting fact is that we need to gain at least 140 seats to win a working majority next time.

What was wrong with our campaign, and how should Conservatives fashion a different approach in the next four years?

We have focused far too much on immigration, even though it is nowhere near top of voters' priorities. Repeatedly highlighting the issue seemed at best obsessive and at worst repellent.

Calling Tony Blair a liar was extraordinarily unwise. It made us look nasty and played straight into Charles Kennedy's hands. It beggars belief that anyone could think that vulgar personal abuse of Tony Blair would make people decide to vote Tory.

Our manifesto was embarrassingly thin. It offered neither a vision of Britain nor a programme for government. In the health service, people are concerned about dirty hospitals, but also about waiting times and GP accessibility. In education, it is not simply school discipline that preoccupies people, but also nursery provision, streaming within schools, improving teaching methods and providing top-quality vocational courses for the millions who do not go to university. Our weakness was to cherry-pick subsets of issues, but fail to grapple with the issues in their entirety.

We need new priorities. First, we must spell out a Tory vision of economic efficiency and social justice. Promoting such an approach would be right in itself and evidence of a more appealing party. Let us show how Tories can both make the country more prosperous and extend opportunity throughout society.

Second, we must recognise that people expect politicians to offer quality public services. So Conservatives must develop a new agenda for the State. We still appear to think that the best way to improve public services is to offer people an escape route from them. This is a counsel of despair. Whether in health or in education, a government can subsidise only a minority to go private. Meanwhile, the majority understandably concludes that the party has given up on them.

Using the rhetoric of localism and arguing that doctors and teachers should be left to deliver services cuts no ice with voters, who think we are simply ducking the issue. The challenge is to provide quality services to all within a reformed public sector.

It would help if colleagues actually used state schools and hospitals. This may not always be feasible, but every leadership contender should be quizzed about his or her intentions. It is no use insisting it is a matter of personal choice. In advocating policies for the NHS and state education, we have far more credibility if we use the systems ourselves.

Third, the party has been wobbly on civil liberties, notably in the ill-judged decision to back identity cards. As freedom lovers, we should oppose ID cards, moves to scrap trial by jury and the arbitrary growth of detention without trial.

Fourth, we must adopt a grown-up approach. Millions of voters are turned off by Punch and Judy politics in which parties rubbish their opponents instead of promoting themselves. Let us stop abusing Labour and start developing a credible Tory alternative. Similarly, opposition for the sake of it is pointless. When the Government introduces legislation that we know is right, we should support it, making us far more credible in opposing it when it is wrong.

Fifth, the party itself has to change. Not just its method of electing the leader, but its procedure for selecting and deselecting candidates. It is outrageous that respected Europhile and socially liberal colleagues should be threatened with the sack by cliques of activists who are completely unrepresentative of the country. We need not only more women and ethnic minority candidates but a broader spread of people from all backgrounds. It will need decisive action from the top to make the party think, look and sound more like the country we want to govern.

Blimpish reactionaries have long rubbished the idea of reaching out by grumbling about "political correctness gone mad". This must stop. Appealing beyond our base of ageing, white, male, rural and southern supporters is necessary and urgent.

In short, root and branch modernisation of the Conservative Party is the order of the day. Make no mistake, we must reform our party as effectively as Tony Blair reformed his - by pitching to the centre ground where elections are won and lost. There is no excuse for delay.

The author is the former shadow International Development Secretary

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