A modest proposal for the Tories by a Tory?

Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton and a member of the joint committee on human rights, writing in today’s edition of The Guardian has a few proposals which, if adopted, could mean that the Tories may  not be as unelectable as they probably are at present.

…..rather than trying to outbid Labour on political correctness, we need a positive vision, rooted in fair competition, social tolerance and meritocracy.

The Conservatives have relevant policy ingredients – for example, lifting the lowest paid out of income tax, and the right to buy council homes – but still lack a theme. For all Labour’s politics of envy, the British remain resolutely meritocratic. According to YouGov, three-quarters say Britain is not a meritocracy – but, by four to one, agree an unequal society can be fair, as long as there is equal opportunity. This should be the clarion call for Conservatives to reach out to the aspirational underdog. But what would such an agenda look like?

The British remain resolutely meritocratic in pretty much the same way as a drowning man remains resolutely boyant – what’s the alternative? But this  is a premise on which wants to build his argument.

First, the economic message of fiscal discipline should be buttressed by radical empowerment of customer choice – capitalism for the little guy. The government should incentivise companies to sign up to consumer-driven efforts to hold big business to account – like the consumer magazine Which?’s groundbreaking “group switch” of energy companies, which saved 38,000 homes an average £223 on their yearly bills. And it could steer industry towards a secure online facility for switching supplier.

Likewise, requiring banks to give customers a clear, regular, statement of fees – and portable data so they can switch banks – would expand choice and improve service by giving consumers real bargaining power.

Second, the gay marriage controversy would have been less painful for those dissenting if there were reassurance that equality cuts both ways. Yet a Christian airline worker had to trek to Strasbourg to uphold her freedom of conscience, while two Christian hoteliers were prosecuted – and their business bankrupted – for a religious debate with a Muslim guest who was not charged. A British bill of rights could rectify this sense of double standards by strengthening free speech, protecting personal conscience, and promoting tolerance.

Third, rather than doffing a cap at tokenism, we need a meritocrat’s manifesto to revive stalled social mobility. Last year the government introduced audits of 25,000 schools, police forces and councils for their ethnic, religious, gender, sexual and wider social make-up. Senior Conservatives are toying with similar ideas for businesses. But rather than promoting a society blind to social difference, these policies would accentuate them and spark bitter resentment. Likewise, pitting strivers against skivers may resonate, but it’s divisive. We need an ethos that appeals across class and community – based on aspiration, not denigration.

Take school. Reforms to restore academic rigour are vital. Yet what about ambitious youngsters willing to graft, but who don’t want to bury their heads in books? Truancy spikes between 14 and 16 years old – youngsters who are difficult to herd back into class. Yet this is the last year for Young Apprenticeships, which gave them the option to split their time between classroom and workplace. The scheme left just 1% of entrants unemployed, but Labour went cold on it. This government should revive it. Scrapping the pointless Government Equalities Office would pay for it twice over – and send an unequivocal message about the kind of equality Conservatives stand for.

We should also remove regulatory bars to non-graduate access to the professions, like law. That would cut the cost of high-street legal services for the consumer, and realise a dream for many youngsters from tougher backgrounds.

A Conservative message of self-help must reach beyond the middle classes – and give those who have had a rough ride a second chance. Fight for Peace in East London – where I volunteer – helps disaffected teenagers out of a rut. It combines boxing and martial arts, personal development, numeracy and literacy, and youth support. One review estimated that the academy avoided 175 crimes in 2011, saving the community £1m, while another study found it got 73% of those not in employment, education or training (Neets) into work or study. This is precisely the kind of initiative Conservatives should back.

Pollsters are right that fairness remains a Tory blind spot. But we don’t need to ape Labour. Strengthening consumer clout, promoting mutual tolerance and giving the underdog a shot would help define the stubborn optimism that tough times demand.

It all sounds just a little bit paternalistic to me. Give the plebs a few morsels of comfort to be grateful for and all with be well with the the world.