BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 06.10.02

Film: Conservative Film. Terry Dignan reports on the problems facing the Conservative Party.

JOHN HUMPRHYS: Sunny Blackpool weather but a few storms over the leader's heads. Constituencies were unhappy about the Government's stand on Iraq. And inside the conference hall the Trade Unions caused a defeat over the involvement of private firms in the public services. But Tony Blair refused concessions. TOMY BLAIR: I believe that we are at our best when at our boldest. HUMPHRYS: Then an American President boldly went where none had gone before. BILL CLINTON: Conference,Clinton Bill, Arkansas CLP. HUMPHRYS: Clinton had swept into town with the 'Unusual Suspect' Kevin Spacy. He had a political message of support for Tony Blair. But most delegates seemed more impressed by the personal than the political. On the other side of the Atlantic, President Bush won congressional support for action against Iraq, but at the UN there is still strong opposition with Russia and France rejecting a tough new resolution. Top marks for presentation but black marks for attainment. The A'Levels fiasco continues to haunt the Education Secretary Estelle Morris, as more than ninety thousand candidates have their grades reviewed. And John Major was well known for liking a curry in the evenings. But no-one suspected quite how much. Least of all the Tories who are suffering the political indigestion. First the poor old Tories. How many times have we said that in the past few years? It doesn't seem to matter what they do, or who they have as their leader, the country remains resolutely unimpressed. The opinion polls show them permanently stuck in the doldrums and even now that some support for the government seems to be slipping away it's not going to THEM but to the Liberal Democrats. What can they do? Well, they could decide what they stand for for a start. That's what the leadership's critics say. If they're really serious about "modernising" and presenting a different face to the world why don't they get on and do it? I'll be putting that to Oliver Letwin after this report from Terry Dignan. TERRY DIGNAN The Conservatives of Cambridge await the arrival of their guest of honour - Oliver Letwin. He brings with him from Westminster a message of hope. The Tories can win again but only if they change. Otherwise they'll be all dressed up with nowhere to go. These are the most loyal of the Conservative Party's followers, they keep coming to events like this in good times and bad and in recent years it's mainly been bad. A year ago they hoped better times were round the corner when they made Iain Duncan Smith their new Party leader. But so far he's not been able to widen his appeal beyond this hard core of Conservative supporters. ARCHIE NORMAN MP We can't underestimate the seriousness, the gravity of the situation facing the party, I know that Iain Duncan Smith doesn't. We come third amongst young people after - under the age of twenty five - we come third amongst all women under the age of thirty five I believe. DIGNAN A year on from Iain Duncan Smith replacing William Hague, these Conservative activists would be forgiven for thinking things should be looking a lot brighter. But enticing the voters back to the party has proved to be more difficult than even they imagined. Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, under Iain Duncan Smith they've made little or no progress. PROFESSOR PAUL WHITELEY At this stage of the electoral cycle he is not doing much better than William Hague did at his stage of the cycle after 1997. He's got a long long way to go before he registers with the electorate and has a significant impact. DIGNAN Twelve months ago On The Record asked some former Conservative voters in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire why they'd rejected the Party. We're back to see if they've returned to the fold. They haven't. UNNAMED WOMAN: Around about a year ago Iain Duncan Smith was made leader of the Conservative Party. How have things changed in that time? UNNAMED WOMAN You have to struggle to think of the name of the leader and what he looks like and he's leading the Party - where? UNNAMED MAN: When he came in, I thought him being a military man he'd have some life in him - there's no get up and go in the man to actually fight for whatever he believes in. UNNAMED WOMAN Well they swapped one bland leader for another bland leader and we're not quite sure where they're going. So, they need to be a more vocal. UNNAMED WOMAN: It's more fiery under the previous leader who for the moment name escapes me. I can't even remember it...William Hague that's right. DIGNAN This is the hotel where Iain Duncan Smith and his Shadow Cabinet met a week or so ago to try to map out a new route back to power after so many years in the doldrums. The problem Iain Duncan Smith faces at meetings like this is that he gets conflicting advice. On one side of the argument are the so called modernisers - their motto is out with the old and in with the new. They are impatient for the Conservative Party to change and change quickly. On the other side of the divide are those who are wary of change. They are especially worried that between now and the next election they might upset too many voters who still hold traditional Conservative values. And which side does the party leader come down on? Well the modernisers feel that too often at meetings like this his instincts lie with the cautious brigade. This week the spotlight will be on Iain Duncan Smith in Bournemouth at the Conservative Conference. With one poll showing the party now competing with the Liberal Democrats for second place after Labour, Duncan Smith is being urged by modernisers to throw caution to the wind on the big issues of the day. If he doesn't take on the traditionalists, they argue, the Tories will sink further. NORMAN On one side you've got the reformers like me wanting to go faster, on the other side you have people who are sceptical, but the time has come now at this Conference where on some of these big issues he needs to define where he stands because otherwise there won't be a sense that it's coherent, that it's indelible, that it's lasting. WHITELEY This is exactly what Tony Blair did in the fight with the left on Clause Four of the party constitution back in the 1990s and it helped to establish his position as a strong leader in the minds of the wider public so it might not be a bad thing for Iain Duncan Smith to pick some fights selectively in order to attract attention. DIGNAN But using the Conference to bash Tory traditionalists, to show the party has changed, would leave many activists feeling disenchanted. JILL KIRBY It seems to me to be false to suggest that you have to sort of kick all these people in the teeth in order to prove that you're something different. I think if you make the argument coherently and on the basis of the Conservative solutions to different problems then you bring everybody with you, you can bring your traditional supporters if you like and you can also reach a wider audience. DIGNAN The Party's modernising wing believe this week's Conference here in Bournemouth will provide a big test as to whether or not the Conservatives really are changing. There won't just be a state of the art set on show, to prove the party is now listening to the outside world there'll be speeches from organisations you don't normally associate with a Tory gathering, groups representing lone parents, victims of domestic violence, even trade unionists will have their say. But it will take more than a new style conference to show that underlying attitudes within the Conservative Party have fundamentally altered. NORMAN We have a long long way to come back and that is exactly why this Conference should be a real landmark, a real punctuation point, a point at which we are able to say and the public are able to say afterwards, this is a different kind of Conservative Party, it has changed beyond recognition from the one that lost the last Election. DIGNAN The Tories lost despite their traditional promise to cut taxes. These Hemel Hempstead voters regarded extra money for health and education as more important. UNNAMED WOMAN: But at the moment if you look at the two choices - investing or cutting tax. UNNAMED MAN: Invest. UNNAMED WOMAN: Investing. UNNAMED WOMAN: When they were in power before they sold the public the low taxation card and I think it proved that it didn't work because when the Tories went out of power the NHS was in a hell of a mess so was education, schools were suffering from lack of resources and I don't think it can be sold any longer. WHITELEY The Conservatives have a problem to think out how they're going to deal with this tax spending issue when they are seen by the average voter as extremist on it. NORMAN On issues like taxation and public services we have to establish once and for all whether we believe that investment in public services, properly delivered through reform public service, which might mean increasing taxation, is something we're prepared to contemplate. DIGNAN Once the Conservatives scaled the heights of British politics. And they will again if they stay true to their traditional tax-cutting philosophy, according to those who reject the modernisers' thesis. JOHN REDWOOD I think the Conservatives must go into the next election offering lower taxes and I think it is very easy to do so because we have a government which is characterised by tax and waste on a massive scale. DIGNAN: But the modernisers have another target in their sights - privatisation - a policy still dear to the hearts of those who promoted it in the 1980s. REDWOOD: Privatisation of commercial enterprises was pretty unpopular in the 1980s but we did it and we proved that it worked. Who would now go back to a nationalised phone monopoly when you had to wait six months to get a line installed. I think we need to pick it up and turn it into a really good agenda that will modernise health and education and transport in exactly the way that we Conservatives modernised telephones in the 1980s. NORMAN: The general public still think we're primarily motivated by privatisation, by profit, by the objective of reducing taxation for generally better off people, and we have to destroy that image once and for all. DIGNAN: Asking these party activists to abandon traditional Tory policies on taxation and public services is one thing. Getting them to embrace changes in attitudes to homosexuality quite another. The so-called Section 28 law bans local authorities promoting homosexuality. Labour wants to scrap it. So do Tory modernisers to show the party is now more respectful of minorities. NORMAN The fact is Section 28 has never behaved.... changed anybody's behaviour anywhere and it's something that Westminster politicians get worked up in a lather about, we should put it on one side, it stigmatises a group of people who feel strongly about it, you know socially liberal Britain in an open tolerant Conservative Party, which say this is a relic which has no affect on people's lives and it should be abandoned. KIRBY: I think it would be sad if the Conservative Party got dragged into you know we can only show we care if we wear this, you know pro gay thing on our sleeve. If I were invited to say to my MP you know this is what you should do, then I would have to say I personally would rather stick with Section 28 than have nothing to replace it. DIGNAN Respect for traditional values is part of the Tory Party's DNA. So are modernisers right to want change because many voters no longer share these values. REDWOOD I don't think you attract people by going out to them and saying, we've noticed that you belong to a little group and we now love your group very much, they will say, well so what? Every politician says that. DIGNAN What unites the party is a feeling that the Conservatives aren't doing well. And the views of these former Tories of Hemel Hempstead may explain why. UNNAMED MAN And you don't take any notice of the leader because you think he is that bland they are going to get nowhere. UNNAMED WOMAN I think they have had a great opportunity with changing the leaders and at that timing they could have grasped and taken that by the horns and just come out with a whole new policy and revamped the whole party but I am afraid they fluffed it. NORMAN We're ambitious for Iain Duncan Smith and you know my advice to him is that slow change is no change, people just won't notice it and the time has come now to pin your colours to the mast, and particularly because nobody pays much attention to oppositions nowadays, we've got to shout loud from the rooftops about it. This Conference should be the point at which the pace quickens and the Party is faced by Iain Duncan Smith with the unavoidable choice of change or die. DIGNAN The painstaking ascent to power has barely begun. Indeed Iain Duncan Smith says he's only at base camp. But many Conservatives fear he'll go the way of his predecessor and take his party down with him.
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.