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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.