I have heard one or two senior people in the Conservative Party saying that we should not engage on the issues raised by single-issue or minority parties, for fear of giving them an advantage by “fighting on their ground” or by “accepting their terms of trade”. This is, I am afraid, a very dangerous view.
Take the BNP. Their key issue is immigration. But we know from polling that the majority of the British people, and of Conservatives, and indeed of ethnic minorities in the UK, are concerned about immigration and want tougher controls. Even the Labour Party is edging towards this view. It is no concession to the BNP to adopt rigorous policies on immigration. On the contrary, it is an entirely proper and responsible reaction to the genuine concerns of our voters.
The same goes for UKIP, and the EU. The great majority of the British people want a referendum on Lisbon, and would vote No. The great majority would favour a looser and more flexible Europe. To adopt robust policies against Lisbon and against EU integration is no concession to UKIP (least of all during the Euro-election, which is only seven months away). Again, it is a proper and responsible reaction to genuine and well-founded public concerns.
I have heard it argued that for each BNP or UKIP vote we redeem through a tougher stance, we will lose fifty waverers in the middle. But the numbers do not support that view. If the great majority of the people want tougher immigration rules and a more euro-sceptic policy, it follows that waverers in the centre will want those policies too. Only Polly Toynbee and the Guardian tendency will disagree, and they will never vote Conservative anyway.
Our “softly softly” stance is prompted by the desire to be seen as cuddly and soft-focus. But faced with serious problems, the public are not looking for soft-focus and cuddliness. They want clear polices and leadership. Arguably it is because, in our fear of looking “nasty”, we have tip-toed around these sensitive issues and failed to address them properly, that we have allowed space and air-time for UKIP and the BNP to prosper.
Frankly, if we are to come up with tentative, politically-correct, milk-and water policies, if we are going to skirt around the issues that matter to voters on the doorstep, we will deserve to fail. The public respect honesty and conviction, and that is what we have to demonstrate.