David Thomas is a former headmaster and government advisor, who was awarded an OBE for services to education. He is the PPC for Norwich South.
There has been much discussion on this site and others in recent months about two things: the dim polling about the general election and the tendency of parliament to become, as Paul Goodman put it recently, “a platform for local campaigners”.
These are two symptoms of the same disease: accepting stasis rather than fighting for progress.
There are two types of era in politics: eras of stasis and eras of progress. We are in an era of stasis, and we are not determined enough to leave it.
These terms are easily enough defined. In an era of progress people believe that their standard of living is on an upward trajectory and will naturally improve, whether through technological progress or economic growth. In an era of stasis, they believe that it will not.
Eras of stasis are bad, and we should want to leave them in their own right. But they are also eras in which the Conservative Party will lose elections.
In such times, we do not have enough to offer. Those who are unhappy with their lot will vote Labour, who pledge to redistribute a fixed pie to the unhappy. Those who are content will vote Liberal Democrat or Green, who pledge to fight any future development and block even modest signs of progress.
We then get caught in the middle. We offer to grow the role of the state a bit to compete with Labour. Our candidates compete with the Lib Dems and Greens to be seen as defenders of the local status quo.
But we cannot, and should not, compete on either of these. Our only way out is to offer a vision of progress that people can believe in.
This will be hard. People do not object to development out of a desire to stop young families having a home, but because they do not trust that new houses will be well-constructed and built with the required infrastructure. People do not object to new roads and railways out of a determination that businesses should not be able to transport their goods, but because they expect the costs to spiral tenfold and the construction to finish years late.
And they have ceased to trust that it is possible to create an era of progress. For all the talk of slashing red tape, every industry, from childcare to manufacturing, is still feeling the weight of overzealous regulation. Although our economy is recovering better than many and we are now getting inflation under control, slow economic growth across the western world has meant stagnant incomes for the majority of earners for years.
Perhaps because of this, at times I fear we stop trying.
I have just been through the process of selection as a parliamentary candidate. At every juncture I was warned to stick to the conventional wisdom: that I should be as NIMBY as possible. I think this conventional wisdom takes too dim a view of our members.
Local Conservatives in Norfolk have done an heroic job in recent years of investing in economy-changing infrastructure. They got the A11 dualled, they got trains going to “Norwich in 90”, they are going to build the western link, and finish the Norwich ring road. At my selection meeting I was asked to choose, without doing the question, between building houses and protecting green spaces.
I said houses, and got selected.
We Conservatives are the party of progress. We are the believers in the power of free enterprise to transform people’s lives. This site has been running an excellent series on reducing demand for the state, and explored many policy ideas that should find themselves in our next manifesto.
But the most powerful way to reduce demand to the state is to usher in an era of progress where growing incomes and better technology mean that people can do more for themselves.
Let us not be shy about progress. Let us show people a future where their children can buy homes and their businesses are free to innovate.
This is within our grasp. It is not a long-term project in the distance. With determination to reboot our country it could be achieved within a parliament.
And I fear that, if we do not embrace progress, the leadership of the next parliament will not be ours.