BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 07.10.01

Film: FILM ON THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY. What can the Conservative Party do to win back the voters who deserted them at the last two elections?

TERRY DIGNAN: The Hertfordshire town of Hemel Hempstead deserted the Conservatives in 1997 and has shown little desire to return. Indeed, at the last election, Labour actually increased its majority here. The Conservatives, it seems, marooned in their southern English rural heartlands, have lost the knack of attracting support from all classes and regions If Ian Duncan Smith can't win over the voters in places like Hemel Hempstead, then frankly he doesn't have a prayer. What's required, say some Conservatives, is a total transformation of the party's policies and its attitudes - to women, for example and to ethnic minorities. And it would do no harm, it's argued, if the Conservatives tried harder to shed their image as the nasty party. A group of former Conservative voters gather at a house in Hemel Hempstead to form a focus group. They're here to share some thoughts on the party they used to support: VICKY: Thinking about the Conservative Party today, what would you say its main strengths are? ELAINE: I suppose just tradition. But I mean they really need to change. They've really got to look at their image because they're not attracting any youngsters at all. REBECCA: The only things that I was made aware of was that they wanted to keep the pound. LYNN: I think Labour have a more modern image and are more in touch with the nation, I guess, really, whereas the Conservatives have a more sort of traditional, almost old fashioned image really. FRANCIS MAUDE MP: People both inside the party and outside the party sympathise with the party, who desperately want the party to modernise. DIGNAN: Francis Maude, ex-shadow Foreign Secretary, has got the message. He's teamed up with like-minded Conservatives including Archie Norman to prepare plans for a new think-tank. The view of former party strategists that the Tories need new ideas to widen their appeal is now accepted. MAUDE: We look narrow. We don't look as if we represent a broad swathe of the nation, of the country. Either geographically, or socially or in terms of our ethnic mix or in terms of the number of women, who are prominent in the party and that has to change. ANDREW COOPER: Unless the British people feel the Conservative Party has changed to the point that it shares their values, that it's able to engage in the debate about the things that matter to them and that it's a party of decent people not of nasty people, then it will just continue to lose votes and to lose elections. DIGNAN: But here in the London suburb of Romford Andrew Rosindell rejects this analysis. He's a rarity - a Tory who won a seat from Labour at the last election. He says there's nothing much wrong with the Conservatives other than that they don't fight hard enough at grassroots level for what they believe in. ANDREW ROSINDELL MP: I don't believe that we should say we've got it all wrong before, let's start afresh, I don't believe that we need to reform the party from scratch. We've got the right ideas, the right principles but a wrong image and I think that in the next couple of years, we need to focus on getting ourselves the kind of image that is seen to be in touch and in tune with people but also by rebuilding the party at grass roots, being very active locally. DIGNAN: But according to our focus group in Hemel Hempstead, many people feel that the Conservatives don't want their support. REBECCA: They don't make it seem like they're a party for people from all walks of life. It seems like it's a certain class or clique of people. They sort of need to be more inviting and welcoming if they want to have more friends. DIGNAN: These views come as no surprise to those in the party who feel the Conservatives are particularly unwelcoming to women and ethnic minorities. But how to tackle the problem may cause quite a stir. MAUDE: We are under-represented by women, you have all these conversations within the party, lots of lovely people who say well of course, we know we must have more women candidates and more women MPs and it's a really good idea but it wouldn't quite work here. That's got to change. And change quickly. DAVID CURRY MP: Let's be honest about this, I think we may have to do some positive discrimination to get more women into the Party. I think we may have to do some discrimination to be able to get more blacks and ethnic minority people into the Party. ROSINDELL: I think that's a very dangerous route to go down and I think that will backfire on us. I think we should be certainly inclusive. But you do that by treating people the same. You don't do it by dividing people up in to categories. DIGNAN: During his campaign to become party leader, Iain Duncan Smith toured areas of Bradford hit by riots. He said he wanted to win over Asians here who shared Conservative values. Yet his supporters included the Conservative Monday Club which wants the voluntary repatriation of immigrants. Some Tories want the party to disown such attitudes. CURRY: Where you do get excrescencies which go to extremes, then I think the Tory Party would well take the opportunity publicly to have a couple of show trials and actually say well they're no longer part of the Party, and we had the opportunities in the last Parliament and they weren't taken. DIGNAN: It looks as if Tory HQ agrees. To symbolise the Conservatives' commitment to a multiracial society, the party, it appears, has decided to ditch the Monday Club. On The Record can reveal that three Conservative MPs, including Andrew Rosindell, have been told to resign from the Monday Club. We understand the party intends going further by making party membership incompatible with belonging to the Monday Club. It could be a sign that Iain Duncan Smith accepts that the party's image amongst ethnic minority voters must change. But others warn the move could be divisive. ROSINDELL: The symbolic action that the Conservative Party need to take is to prove that we as a party, want everybody to support us and to join us and to be candidates. I don't think we should single out one group or another group and say we don't want you or we want you. We want everybody in our party but we're not going to start, and if we do start this, it's going to cause us great difficulties in the long term. But we're not going to start going down the route of political correctness. DIGNAN: Our focus group regard big domestic issues like tax and spending as no less important than how to make the Conservatives more representative. It seems that cutting taxes is no longer as big a vote winner as the Tories believed. JOHN: Rather than cut taxes for the individual for those that are high earners and so on and so forth, you know, to try and put more back into health and education and so not cut taxes - keep the taxes the same and spend the money in those areas. REBECCA: They are still going to need the money aren't they? JOHN: Of course. REBECCA: They all say that, so where's the money going to come from? It's got to come from somewhere. ELAINE: Make sure you're with BUPA or HSA or whatever and the National Health is just, let it slip by nicely and quietly without anybody kicking up a fuss. MAUDE: I think one of the things that the party has to do is to show that we are absolutely committed to the National Health Service, which doesn't mean to say that we think it should all be set in concrete and preserved without amendment for ever. But, I think the public don't, by and large, feel that the Conservative Party is committed to that. I think they're suspicious of us. CURRY: We impaled ourself really on a dilemma we couldn't escape from as we approached the last election. We felt obliged to match Labour's promises as far as expenditure on the public services was concerned, but simultaneously we wished to remain true to the Tory tradition of cutting taxes, and people said hang on, the sums don't add up and quite frankly they didn't really. DIGNAN: What do you think the Conservative Party should do under Iain Duncan Smith? DR ANTHONY SELDON: I think it has to really get back and remember what the Tory Party has always been about. DIGNAN: Historian Dr Anthony Seldon - the Headmaster of Brighton College - says the Tories dominated the last century because of their pragmatism. In a pamphlet published tomorrow by the Centre for Policy Studies, he says, they could learn from Tony Blair's Labour. SELDON: They saw that the key to the Conservative dominance of that Conservative century was that there was an appetite for power, a hunger for Office and a pragmatism that allowed the party to jettison values and beliefs that were no longer in tune with the public and to adopt new positions, centralist positions, moderate positions that allowed it to capture the core middle vote in British politics. DIGNAN: The party, it is said, lost its preference for pragmatism over ideology under Margaret Thatcher, seen here campaigning in Romford at the last election. But many in the party would be loathe to move to the moderate centre if it meant, for example, abandoning a Thatcherite tax-cutting philosophy. ROSINDELL: Margaret Thatcher won three election victories with very large majorities, it's only when we appeared to lose our direction, it's only when we seemed to become very unsure of ourselves, and rather wishy-washy that we began to lose again. I think that we should stand by what we believe in, be true to ourselves. CURRY: We have not been able as it were to close the door on that Thatcherite period and it is still haunting us. What we need to do is to be able to say Mrs Thatcher was a glorious part of our history, we now need to look to our future. DIGNAN: The current priority for the new Tory leader is to show support for Britain's armed services. UNNAMED MAN: Welcome to HMS Lancaster. DIGNAN: But with an eye on domestic politics, Iain Duncan Smith says he wants to move on from Thatcherism and create a more tolerant image for the party and new policies for public services. But time is not on his side. ANDREW COOPER: There are a lot of constituencies in this country where at the last election it was pretty hard for local parties to perform the most basic functions of a Party, delivering leaflets and knocking on doors, and without an influx of new young members by the next election it is not an exaggeration to say there will be seats where that can no longer be accomplished, so the Conservative Party unable to attract younger support simply is going to die. DIGNAN: In the glory days of Margaret Thatcher Hemel Hempstead backed the Conservatives. Yet the voters here now feel little nostalgia for Thatcherism. That's why Iain Duncan Smith is under pressure to learn from Labour, become a pragmatist and lead his party to the centre ground of British politics.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.