BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 03.02.02

Film: Conservative film%3A Terry Dignan looks at where Iain Duncan Smith is taking the Conservative Party?

TERRY DIGNAN: The man who now leads the Conservatives is taking his party on a journey. His destination is uncertain. So on Tuesday he met women political journalists to explain where he was going. The Conservatives have been getting a better press of late with their new leader speaking out on the issue which matters most to many voters - public services. And there are signs of a more tolerant, caring Conservatism with regard to minorities, young people and women. But does this really mean that Iain Duncan Smith is leading his party back to the centre ground of British politics? It's the direction he should be going in, according to pollsters, because it's where the voters are heading. NICK SPARROW: The proportion of people who say 'I am just in the centre' has grown over those three or four years since we last did the research. So while people are seeing themselves as of the centre they are regarding Labour as somewhat different to them but the Tories as a lot different to them. Being seen of the centre right, rather than right wing, is I think in present circumstances probably the area that they have to aim at, rather than sticking where they are. STEPHEN DORRELL MP: A new generation is refreshingly willing to take people as it finds them, to look past racial stereotypes and to adopt less judgmental attitudes to individuals' private sexual behaviour. DIGNAN: At a meeting of Conservative mainstream, a former Tory minister urges the party to accept changing attitudes to gays and the role of women. Yet although the party's tone is less harsh, if Iain Duncan Smith wants to move further in a more tolerant direction, many party members are likely to resist. DORRELL: The fact that the average age of Conservative activists has been relentlessly rising has tended to cut themselve off, cut them off from those social changes. The much bigger question is how the Conservative Party reconnects with huge swathes of opinion particularly in the cities, from which it's simply become divorced. DIGNAN: Many Tories disagree. ACTUALITY: Then you put that, one of those and the return envelope through. DIGNAN: Here in the London suburb of Upminster, the Conservative MP Angela Watkinson says that when she and her party members knock on doors, they find no evidence of a need to change their policies towards any social group. ANGELA WATKINSON MP: Anybody is welcome to join if they have Conservative views. I certainly don't think we should be targeting any particular group simply because they are male, female, homosexual, old, young or whatever. It's certainly not an issue which is ever raised with me by constituents, I don't think one constituent has ever approached me about it. DIGNAN: But the party's attitude to one group, homosexuals, is an issue for Nicholas Boles, here preparing the launch of a new centre right think tank, Policy Exchange. ACTUALITY: Freedom. Prosperity. Good words. DIGNAN: He wants Duncan Smith to drop Tory support for the law banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools, which won't be easy given the divisions in the party. NICHOLAS BOLES: Iain Duncan Smith before his election as leader said that he recognised that Section 28 as an example has become a totem and that whatever the rights and wrongs of attempts to try and control what sex education materials are used in schools, that Section 28 has become a bigger issue than that and needs to be looked at again. DORRELL: Well, the Conservative Party I think has to face up to the fact that the vast majority of people outside the Conservative Party now regard the question as whether somebody enters a gay relationship or not as a matter for the people concerned and nothing to do with the politicians and we have to make certain that that is, I think that's right in principle and I think the Conservative Party should articulate it as a principle and if there is any piece of legislation, whether it's Section 28 or anything else that obstructs that principle, then it should be removed. GERALD HOWARTH MP: The purpose was that homosexuality could not be promoted as a pretended family relationship and that is a very precise definition and if you believe in the pre-eminence of marriage then the two follow hand in hand. The pre-eminence of marriage, Section 28. DIGNAN: In Upminster, there's a break from leafleting. The Tories here tasted success last year when Angela Watkinson won the seat. But she's one of only fourteen Tory women MPs. She supports her leader's aim to increase this number but would oppose a policy of positive discrimination. ACTUALITY WATKINSON: Personally I am against any form of quota, certainly against all-women lists and it would be quite dangerous I think to take away the autonomy of the associations because they are voluntary bodies. ANN WIDDECOMBE MP: Encouraging women to consider has got to be the answer, it is to be to get women to come forward in large enough numbers. I would utterly repudiate positive discrimination because what it does is create second-class citizens. DIGNAN: Iain Duncan Smith would no doubt like as many women to be Tory MPs as there are female political correspondents. But if Conservative constituency associations continue to select men, then some argue positive discrimination may be inevitable. BOLES: We do need to achieve a better representation of women and ethnic minorities among candidates. I think that there are many other ways of achieving that result before you have to do things like all-women shortlists, but we shouldn't rule out, if it isn't working, looking again at the idea of all-women shortlists. ACTUALITY DIGNAN: So, it's unclear how far the party's approach to women, gays and other groups will change. The journalists he lunched with have reported a new tone on public services, too. This issue, rather than Europe or asylum under the previous leader, is now at the centre of the Tory agenda. But there's uncertainty over what this means. Here at Westminster the Tory Shadow Chancellor Michael Howard has suggested that to ensure we get the schools and hospitals we want, the party may decide not to lower taxes. But Iain Duncan Smith says the Conservatives will lower taxes by, in his own words, getting government off our backs. JOHN REDWOOD MP: I am an optimist and I think I know the party reasonably well and I think we will be going into the next election some time away we believe offering selected tax changes or reductions as well as offering a much better range of choice on public services. WATKINSON: I want to say a little bit first of all about the Palace of Westminster because that's where it all happens. DIGNAN: Many of the parents of these girls at the Sacred Heart of Mary School would like more spending on education - and other services. Their MP Angela Watkinson believes the Conservatives have to respond to this demand and put tax cuts on the backburner. Yet once, the party believed its commitment to lower taxation made it unbeatable in its battle against Labour. WATKINSON: I think that's what's changed it is the mood of the electorate, they are very, very clear about what they want. My constituency is commuter land, people are going into London both on the tube and on the Southend to Fenchurch Street Line and the level of dissatisfaction is very high. We have to address those issues, they are complaining about vandalism and crime in the area and those, those sort of problems are more important to them at the moment than the amount of tax they are paying. JOHN MAPLES MP: I don't think the priority here is to get taxation down. I think the priority is to get health spending up. But the model of paying for it increasingly out of taxation is not delivering the kind of health service that people want. DIGNAN: Here at Tory Party HQ, Iain Duncan Smith has argues that the Conservatives could reduce taxes by making us all less reliant on the state for public services. This would mean, of course, a much bigger role for the private sector. It could be a risky strategy if the Conservatives want to avoid being portrayed as a party of right wing privatisers. Since taking over, the new leader has criss- crossed Britain preaching the Tory message. But he's getting conflicting advice on what he should be saying. His instincts may be to listen to those who are urging him to stay true to his Thatcherite beliefs. REDWOOD: We need to show more free enterprise, more private capital, will release a much better service as it did with the phones, it could do so on the trains, on the underground, in a number of other areas. LORD NORMAN BLACKWELL: The Conservative Party did a lot in its term in government to break down many of the nationalised industries and privatise and introduce more devolution into public services, but they hit a glass window when it came to the services like health and education, the public wasn't ready to accept that these should move on from being state monopolies. So I think the opportunity is there now for the Conservative Party to pick up its agenda and explain once again why you can't run big organisations as bureaucratic state command and control enterprises and that you have to find ways of breaking them up, of getting choice. DIGNAN: At Conservative mainstream's reception the talk was of modernising the party. Some would prefer to improve the management of public services rather than look for new ways to pay for them. They are taking to heart warnings about policies which remind voters of past Tory governments. SPARROW: One can look at the history of privatisation as a policy introduced by the Conservative Government which perhaps by the end literally ran into the buffers with Railtrack and people started to move in a different direction and perhaps think no public services need to be supported. So there is a danger now in using words that associate people back to those policies. BOLES: That is one of the reasons why myself I think that we in the Conservative Party should focus more on issues of management and less on issues of money, on issues of who is making decisions about how the National Health Service is run rather than who is footing the bill and exactly how they're footing the bill, if we do that we have more chance of taking the people with us than if we focus endlessly on the question of whether the money that is funding it is private or public. DIGNAN: So it's not clear which way Duncan Smith is heading. On minorities and women the tone is softer but, as with tax and spending, the policies are uncertain. The Tories have started a journey into the unknown.
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.