THE BLOG

Resolute Relevance Is Rolling Conservatism Forward

19/09/2013 13:08 BST | Updated 18/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Conservatism is on a roll, with electoral success so far this month in Australia, Norway and Merkel's Christian Democrats hoping to capitalise on the Chancellor's personal popularity. A lot has been said about the lessons from our "Anglosphere" colleagues in Australia, but we must also look carefully at the lessons from our European neighbours too. After all, the Norwegian conservatives paid us the compliment of learning the lessons of our own return to government here in the UK.

Høyre, the Norwegian Conservative party, received 26.8% of the vote this week, which doesn't sound like much to learn from. Yet it was their third-highest vote share in post-war elections and ten per cent higher than their vote share in the previous election in 2009. It is a remarkable turnaround both for the party and its leader, Erna Solberg. In 2005, Høyre won just 14.1% of votes, a record low. The conservatives were in danger of being written off, particularly after being beaten again by the Labour party-led left in 2009, while the Progressive Party were piling on votes somewhere further to the right.

Høyre was in bad shape. So it listened. Not to columnists and 'opinion formers', but to the people of Norway. It sought to gather and understand "heartfelt" issues from members of the public. Høyre focused absolutely on winning the election facing it in 2013, not refighting elections long since past. The conservatives wanted to understand what Norwegians thought about themselves now, and where they saw their future. Like Australia, Norway avoided the worst of the financial crisis, but, like Australians, Norwegians still had concerns about the Left's direction. Norwegians worried that too much of their country's huge sovereign wealth fund was being spent on inflationary current spending and too little on expansionary infrastructure. They felt that the education system could be improved, that more could be done to integrate immigrant communities, that health outcomes could be better. So Høyre applied conservative principles, to find contemporary solutions: engaging the private sector to help deliver public services, investing in supply-side measures rather than current consumption, cutting taxes, promoting personal freedom and social responsibility.

Under the narrative slogans "opportunity for all" and "new ideas, better solutions," Høyre drilled down into the issues that mattered most to people. They talked about creating the conditions for a more enterprising economy and well-delivered delivering services. They challenged the Left on healthcare, education and drug rehabilitation. There was an emphasis on rolling back the state wherever possible, but improving the role of the state where necessary, particularly on rehabilitation programmes. And within the overall narrative, their manifesto was brimming with ideas to deliver on the slogans. If it mattered to Norwegians, it went in the manifesto: improving VAT compensation for voluntary groups, promoting reward schemes to encourage the building of footpaths and cycleways, introducing mobile tax offices, ensuring equal tax treatment for reindeer owners and so on. They are not all policies to excite the commentariat, perhaps, but they are ideas nonetheless that got the voters voting.

Efficient delivery and policy making has been described as "boring" by some, but actually it's about being relevant on the issues that matter most to people. This can only reinforce our resolve in the UK to focus on outcomes for consumers and tax payers. Jeremy Hunt's patient-led approach to better health outcomes, for example, or Michael Gove's parent-responsive education reforms, have rebalanced policy away from the good of the producer onto the good of the service user, the consumer, the person in the community. New ideas, better solutions, within an integrated society, confident and secure in its national identity. Angela Merkel seems set to increase her vote share with a similar approach of resolute relevance. She does so from the seat of government with a liberal junior coalition partner. And there will certainly be lessons in that for conservatives here in the UK.