“We are the new political mainstream” bellowed Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour Party conference last week. I was astonished by this audacious bid for the centre ground of British politics.
There is nothing mainstream about spending billions of pounds you do not have. There is nothing mainstream about a fantasy utopian future that will lead to disillusion. There is nothing mainstream about governing society with the belief that the state can do better than individuals, families and communities.
Britain deserves better. But the general election gave Conservatives a rude awakening; something in Corbyn’s message is resonating, particularly with the under-45s.
He has sketched out an alluring alternative vision for what a post-Brexit Britain might look like, and we have a fight on our hands. The situation we face is not as simple as the young generation having no memory of the Sixties and Seventies, when Britain tested Corbyn’s socialist idyll to near destruction.
The “Northern Rock” generation, whose political and economic outlook has been shaped by the collapse and nationalisation of the bank in 2008, have lost faith in the ability of markets to deliver for them in their lifetime. For them markets and multinational corporations are to blame for stagnant wages and hyperinflation in the housing market.
It is therefore understandable why youthful Britain can simultaneously enjoy the rapid innovation that has given us smart phones, Uber and Netflix and still feel capitalism has let them down.
Simply critiquing Labour’s policy arithmetic will not work. We have to stand for something: to win hearts and minds by addressing this generation’s problems, and offering hope and a positive vision for the future, not just for the next election.
We must provide a clear vision for the UK of 2050.We need to give the young reasons to believe in the market economy as the best path to opportunity and possibility, or we will never persuade them to support us and the Conservative Party will age and wither.
This means rejecting Red Tory-ism because it will fail. It means fixing markets rather than bashing business. Why vote for Corbyn-lite when you can get the real thing? A true conservative believes that (orderly) markets can deliver hope and prosperity.
The political centre-ground has see-sawed from left to right with the times. Corbyn is making a bid to shift it to the extreme left. We should meet him head on rather than follow in his slipstream, and in so doing make it clear that our motive is to make the world a better place.
Honesty about both the weaknesses of Jeremy Corbyn’s solution and what needs fixing in today’s market is crucial. Many tell of the misery of travelling by train in the 1970s, even compared with the woes on Southern Rail today, for example. Living standards in eastern Europe were a fraction of those in western Europe when the Berlin wall came down.
Theresa May is listening and responding to the call for change with significant new announcements on student fees and help to buy.
Reaching these younger voters requires new policy and new ways to communicate that are in tune with digital natives. Understanding that modern politics is a dialogue, not a monologue and about the live experience.
This ironically means a return to much older skills that have been lost in the TV age: face-to-face debates and stump speeches as well as direct engagement on social media.
Personally, I am rattled by Corbyn, because I do not see Cuba and Venezuela as the model for our country.
That’s why I plan to do my bit by visiting colleges and universities to share, listen and learn what society this rising generation wants to build.
When Keith Joseph tried this in the 1970s, visiting 150 campuses in two years, he was booed, ambushed and boycotted several times, but he persisted.
To be convincing in this effort, we cannot pick and choose one group of voters over the other, while claiming we are “One Nation” Conservatives.
The modern Conservative Party cannot have no-go areas. We must engage with humility, and communicate a clear vision.
Young voters have made it clear they want radical change and an end to politics as usual. I believe we can bring about the change young voters are crying for. We can do that as a party. We have done it in the past, and we can do it again, because Britain deserves better.