Whatever happened to the "Compassionate Conservatives"?

To start the build up to the election this May, Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show featured a twenty five minute interview with the Prime Minister. David Cameron had the opportunity to defend his government’s record over the last five years and promote his vision for a future majority Conservative government. People will, no doubt, pick up on his assertion that the NHS is not “unaffordable”, his clarification of the party’s line on Europe, and his “commitment” that the regular armed forces will not be reduced any further in the coming parliament. Yet, what struck me most from the interview was his revealing response to Marr’s questions on the marked drop in the delivery of ‘Meals on Wheels’ to elderly people from Conservative Councils. Whilst Cameron maintained the importance of budget responsibility and the provision of jobs, Marr questioned what had happened to the Big Society. The Prime Minister’s response was clear cut: “I am a Compassionate Conservative.”

The question is, what is a “Compassionate Conservative” and how can he reconcile his party’s increasingly right wing rhetoric with this stance?

When the Prime Minister searched around for explanations for how his government’s planned cuts to benefits which could put as many as 900,000 children into poverty, he struggled to sound compassionate. His eventual answer was that, “Compassion is measured in creating a growing economy”. I could only cringe.

Compassion can’t be measured. Nor should compassion be solely tied down to the government’s economic argument. A Compassionate Conservative should recognise that societies are not solely underpinned by economics, but rather individuals’ investment of time and effort into their communities. Compassionate Conservatism involves recognising the humanity of communal relationships that can’t necessarily be given a price tag.

There was a time when these kind of observations were integral to Conservative thought. The “Big Society” that headlined the Conservative bid for government at the last election promised a new direction for the party. David Cameron’s plans for a Big Society Bank for funding social enterprises promised a new conservatism that valued localism, communities, and social responsibility.

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Equally promising were plans for a National Citizen’s Service (NCS) for 16-17 year olds from different backgrounds to mix and learn the values of participation in civic society. Through the rhetoric of the “Big Society”, David Cameron tried to convince us that the Conservatives could empathise with struggling families, neighbourhoods, and local social enterprises, if not a larger state.

David Cameron’s government has delivered on some of these promises. This year there will be an estimated 150,000 places available on NCS programmes for 16-17 year olds. A localism act was passed in 2011 giving individuals new rights and powers to make changes in their communities.

Yet, the promise of a compassionate “Big Society” working most effectively in the most deprived areas of the country has struggled to materialise. Only this time last year, a Centre for Social Justice report revealed the failure of “Big Society” initiatives to penetrate the most deprived regions of the country. Areas like Port Clarence in Teesside, or Camborne in Cornwall were described as “charity deserts”, seemingly overlooked by the “compassionate” policies of the government. The policy seemed to be working best in the places that needed it least– Conservative “compassion” could not quite reach out to the neediest.

Whatever the successes or failures of the “Big Society”, the problem now is that the kind of social initiatives that it promoted are disappearing from Conservative election rhetoric. Whereas the “Big Society” idea suggested that the new Conservatives were committed to a radical programme of compassionate social reform, the party’s current policy reaction to the rise of UKIP has undermined this. The more the ‘big idea’ behind David Cameron’s last bid for government recedes behind rhetoric on immigration, the EU and austerity measures, the further individuals will become alienated by Conservative claims to being “compassionate”.

The latest YouGov poll puts the Conservatives at 32 per cent of the vote – four points behind the Labour Party. David Cameron is perceived to be ahead of Ed Miliband on his leadership and the economy, yet his party is lagging behind in the polls. In the end, he has a choice: he can either chase after the 16 per cent of the vote taken up by UKIP, or he can reposition his party back towards the centre ground. If he is serious about winning this election, the Prime Minister should not chase the UKIP vote, but rather he should work to re-establish his links to the centre ground. This will only happen if he can reassure voters that his party understands our problems; that the Conservatives can once again be “compassionate”.