Conservative Party Modernisation 1 : A ‘slick re-branding exercise’? Theory vs PracticeBy Katharine Dommett on 25 March 2015
Ten years ago David Cameron was elected as Conservative Party leader with a daunting challenge. After successive electoral defeats and three rapid changes in party leadership there was a perception that the Conservative Party needed to change. Whilst once their message had resonated with voters, now it was seen as out of touch and toxic, alienating the electorate and relegating the party to the political wilderness.
In 2005 Cameron outlined his response. In his leadership campaign he advocated ‘a modern compassionate Conservatism that is right for our times and right for our country’. What was needed, he argued, was party modernisation that would bring about real change within the party not another ‘slick re-branding exercise’. The term ‘modernisation’ thereafter became a familiar feature of Cameron’s rhetoric, but what exactly he meant by this phrase was often less than clear. But how do we judge the success of Cameron’s modernisation project? How can we assess claims that is has been abandoned, failed or is in need of a ‘reboot’? It is necessary to think about party modernisation more generally, Conservative modernisation and the question of whether to modernise.
What is Party Modernisation?
Quite simply, we can define modernisation as being all about modern conditions. It describes a process by which actors (in this case within parties) come to perceive their existing ideas and behaviour as being out of kilter with modern conditions. This diagnosis can result in different kinds of change:
- Micro level change which focuses on policy, personnel or branding: Here, parties seek to inject new policy ideas or adopt new marketing strategies that reflect modern conditions. Such change is easy to effect but has limited consequences for the party as a whole and can be easily reversed.
- Meso level changes in which the principles, priorities, organisational procedure or structure of a party can be altered to update existing practices in line with modern ideas: This is a more substantial process but it is not equitable with the third, macro level.
- Macro level changes: At this level modernisation involves a change in ideology whereby the ideas and vision that underpin the party’s actions and behaviour is fundamentally shifted to accommodate modern ideas. Change in this form is likely to endure as it is embedded within the long term objectives and ideas underpinning the party.
The significance of these levels lies in the way modernisation can be assessed. By determining how politicians present and pursue modernisation it is possible to establish a benchmark against which subsequent change can be monitored. We can use this framework to assess the nature and success of Cameron’s modernisation project. It enables us to see that a limited degree of change was pursued and, in practice, was not enacted.
In early 2006 Cameron argued that the party had revised its agenda to ‘fight social injustice, ‘meet the great environmental threats of the age, ‘provide first-class healthcare, education and housing’, ‘take a lead in ending global poverty’, ‘protect the country we love’, ‘give power to people’, and ‘be an open, meritocratic and forward-looking Party’. But these policies were not integrated within a new ideology. Rather, traditional aims and values were seen to be ‘as relevant now as they have ever been’. The degree of change was therefore limited and was liable to being disrupted by events such as the global financial crisis in 2007-8 that saw the Conservatives’ redefine their electoral strategy.
Before 2007-8 the presumption of economic growth led to a concern with social welfare policies and state investment. But during and after the banking crisis, parties across the political spectrum began to adapt their messages to suit the new economic conditions. The Conservative Party marginalised the majority of ideas associated with modernisation and reasserted more established conservative concerns. A traditional message of decentralisation, smaller government, personal responsibility and a free and fair society therefore began to re-emerge.
On this marker Cameron’s modernisation project was not a success as the changes outlined were – by and large – not enacted. In part this was due to events that caused the party to re-evaluate the most appropriate electoral strategy. Such re-evaluation was possible precisely because of the level of change pursued. If modernisation had entailed macro level ideological change then such a reversal would have been far more challenging to effect.
To Modernise or Not?
Considering the theory and practice of Conservative modernisation it therefore seems that modernisation can be pursued at different levels and that as a process it is by no means simple to achieve. Whilst it is easy for politicians to deploy the language of modernisation and offer visions of change, delivering these shifts in practice requires significant skill. Not only must a leader develop a vision for change, they must also secure consensus for change within their own party, and consistently articulate and enact their prescription to achieve success. Such achievements would be challenging in a period of political stability, but when unforeseen events arise and redefine the political landscape pursuing such change becomes exceedingly difficult.
For this reason it is argued that politicians should adopt modernisation strategies with caution as whilst they can pay significant dividends if implemented successfully, if change is not achieved it can compound an impression of distrust and worsen parties’ electoral fortunes. As we approach the 2015 General Election and Cameron attempts to expand his appeal and secure an outright majority these negative effects of a failed modernisation strategy may well be felt – hindering the party in attempts to convey a new modern image likely to attract greater support.
Katharine Dommett is Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics and Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre in the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. Her article ‘The Theory and Practice of Party Modernisation’ is published in British Politics.
This is the first in a series of blogs on Conservative Party modernisation, based on a selection of papers from the forthcoming special issue of British Politics on 'Conservative Modernisation From Opposition to Government'. The issue, which is edited by Peter Kerr, Steve Kettell and Richard Hayton, was the product of the 'Whatever Happened to Conservative Modernisation' workshop event hosted by the University of Leeds in September 2014, and organised jointly by the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Specialist Group and British Politics'.
Image: Mick Fealty CC BY-NC-ND